Sarah Palin’s attacks Saturday on the Obama-Bill Ayers connection raise the question as to whether she will now be the one to do the heavy lifting on Barack Obama’s past. In a few respects it makes sense. John McCain disdains this sort of thing and can barely bring himself to criticize his current Senate colleagues for their non-oversight of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Palin is also drawing huge crowds so her remarks will be heard by lots of people and picked up by local media at mass rallies in key states. And she certainly has a cheery way of twisting the knife.
But at some point McCain, either in interviews or in the remaining debates, will need to make the case himself. The debates are still drawing tens of millions of people and the post-debate spin takes up a couple of news cycles. Unless it comes up then, he will bypass the best chance to make his case directly to voters. His silence then will convey that this stuff just isn’t very important. The risk is obvious: he appears too “mean” and sullies his presidential image. That said, if he still believes he can win this, there’s no use in conserving energy or holding back if he can make an effective argument as to why the these past connections are important. And why are they?
First, it’s a matter of judgment. Obama’s advisors, friends and mentors (e.g. Reverend Wright, Father Pfleger, Tony Rezko, Rashid Khalidi Bill Ayers, Larry Walsh, James Johnson) make up a grab bag of problematic characters and bizarre personalities. What is his criteria for selecting associates and why did he find such flawed figures — or why did they find him?
Second, as each of these characters surfaced we got misdirection, denial and lies. Wright wasn’t really his spiritual mentor, you see. Ayers was just a guy in the neighborhood, don’t you know? Khalidi was only a professor at Chicago. But each of these was much more — friends by any ordinary person’s definition. Obama should have leveled with voters and instead obfuscated. As we know from the Clintons, lying is addictive and potentially fatal for a president who has grown confident in his ability to snow supporters and the public at large.
And finally, these characters — with the exception of Johnson (who is just a garden variety Washington insider/fixer who benefited handsomely at the taxpayers’ expense) and Walsh (who is like many an Illinois politician under FBI investigation) — share a common view of America: it’s a flawed, mean, racist country. Did Obama share this outlook? Did he not and instead concealed his contempt for everything these people espoused? It is hard to tell and reminds us how very little we actually know about Obama’s core beliefs — if he has them.
So it’s a good idea for McCain to let Palin loose, but it may not be sufficient. There are plenty of reasons why this nexus of associations matter and if McCain wants voters to believe it matters he better say so. Himself.