On the question of “Does Bill Ayers matter?” I find this David Bernstein post persuasive: the Ayers and Wright connections speak both to the political culture in which Obama thrived and the intellectual bubble in which he has existed. Or as Bernstein puts it:
[H]ow else do you explain that when Obama was asked in a debate with Clinton about his ties to Ayers, he analogized his friendship with Ayers to his friendship with Senator Tom Coburn, as if being friends with a very conservative senatorial colleague is somehow analogous with being friends with an unrepentant extreme leftist domestic terrorist?
In short, Obama’s ties to Ayers and Wright suggest to me NOT that Obama agrees with their views, but that he is the product of a particular intellectual culture that finds the likes of Wright and Ayers to be no more objectionable, and likely less so, than the likes of Tom Coburn, or, perhaps, a Rush Limbaugh. Not only that, but he has been in his particular intellectual bubble so long that he was unable to recognize just how offensive the views of a Wright are to mainstream America, or how his ties to Ayers would play with the public, especially post-9/11.
But on the question of whether this will have much of an impact politically, I’m with David Frum and Ross Douthat. The Willie Horton and Helms “white hand” ads weren’t effective merely because they were culture war dogwhistles. Those ads actually spoke to pressing voter concerns and reinforced already existing negative images the electorate had of the Democratic candidate. Crime, jobs, and the costs affirmative action imposed on working-class whites were real issues in those races. The Weather Underground, however loathsome, is simply not an issue in this year’s election and a zillion conservative blog posts can’t make it so.
Hitting the Ayers connection in October during a slide in the polls, rather than in July when Obama was still being defined in the minds of the voters, looks less like Willie Horton and Bush ’88 than attacks on Bill Clinton’s Vietnam-era activities by Bush ’92. I think Douthat is right about the message this sends: “The stock market is tanking. The global economy is in peril. And we think the most important subject on your mind should be whether Barack Obama was too chummy with a Sixties terrorist you’ve probably never heard of. “
Do I think an association with an unrepentant terrorist should matter? Absolutely. It would be fair game if McCain were palling around with an abortion clinic bomber. But Bill Ayers isn’t going to put John McCain in the White House.
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