Is McCain Serious About Ayers?

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Marc Ambinder has written a post arguing that McCain is not serious about the William Ayers attacks his campaign has been launching all week. The argument goes like this:

To truly drive Ayers into the public conversation, to trick what they consider an irredeemably biased press corps into biting, McCain has three vehicles gassed up and ready to go.

(1) He could put lots of money into an Ayers ad — video press releases don’t cut it.
(2) He could devote a stump speech to Obama’s associations and Obama’s associations only
(3) He could mention Ayers in a debate.

So far, McCain has done none of those things. On top of doing none of those things, he has declared Obama’s association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright as off-limits.

I’m not so sure “serious” or “not serious” is the best measure for understanding McCain and Ayers. Campaigns regularly dispatch surrogates, including a vice presidential pick, to lead harsh attacks. And McCain has not exactly shied away from the topic of Ayers. He talked about him yesterday during his Wisconsin town hall, and in a recent interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson. As for the television buy, there is no real need. The Ayers charges are explosive enough to get plenty of viral, free news media attention. As for the Wright parallel, Ambinder gets at an odd quirk in the McCain strategy. Going back to the spring, McCain’s advisers ruled Wright out of bounds. The reasons were multiple: McCain had his own pastor problem at the time; the campaign did not want to be tarred with the racial overtones of the Wright criticism; and, I suspect, McCain believed personal religious observance to be an inappropriate campaign topic. But the campaign’s official avoidance of Wright has always made its embrace of other “association” attacks seem odd. [Update: At a town hall Friday afternoon, McCain appeared to respond to concerns that his campaign was too fiercely negative. “I have to tell you,” McCain said of Obama. “He is a decent person, a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” Minutes later, he again raised concerns about Obama’s association with Ayers.]

That said, something has been lost in the media’s shock and awe over McCain’s sharply negative “Manchurian Candidate” attack on Obama over the last few weeks: None of this is really that surprising.

More after the jump. . .

McCain’s advisers have made it clear for months that they viewed themselves (accurately, I think) as underdogs, campaigning in a political environment worse for Republicans than Watergate, with a disorganized and underfunded campaign organization, at a time when 80 to 90 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Given all this, McCain, Steve Schmidt and Co. decided that the election would largely be a referendum on Obama, and so Obama had to be taken down. At some point this summer, McCain signed on to the plan. He stopped being friendly with the press, relentlessly hammered his messages, and turned unapologetic about negative, often misleading attacks. The script was written all the way through Election Day. The current problem for McCain is that his plan calls for focusing the last month of the campaign on questions about Obama’s character and background. But now those questions seem like a sideshow, given the increasingly terrifying economic conflagration that is sweeping across the world.

This returns us to the underlying question raised by Ambinder’s post. Who is the serious McCain? Who is the real McCain? Is it the straight talker of 2000, the one lionized by John Weaver, who rejected politics as usual, won points for surprising candor, and would never be “serious” about associations like Ayers? Or is it the current iteration of McCain, who is every bit the fierce political cynic that he once seemed to reject? Is McCain really a special-type of politician who abandoned his convictions? Or was he never special at all?

My answer is both and neither. Politicians who choose to run for the White House are defined by two overriding attributes: Fierce ambition, and an absolute conviction in their own greatness and ability to do good. If possible, in an era that distrusts politics and politicians, they all attempt to appear above and beyond politics-as-usual. This is true for both McCain and Obama.

For years, McCain was well-served by his ironic approach, his regular nods to the stupidity and dishonesty of the political debate. It was sincere to the extent that it furthered his ambition and confirmed his own sense of his ability to do good. At some point this year, however, I think he decided that he faced a choice. He could either stick with the old approach and lose, or he could switch to a new approach and have a real chance of winning. He chose the latter. This does not change who McCain is. Through both iterations, he was a politician in the classic sense: a fiercely ambitious man totally convinced of his own ability to do good.

The shame of this cycle is that we don’t know what Obama would have done if he ever faced a similar big choice between his public image and his own self-interest. The playing field has always been uneven, and Obama always had a clear advantage. We have some hints, however, that Obama is not as pure a reformer as he claims to be. He abandoned his pledge to support public financing when he realized he could raise more money on his own. He dodged McCain’s proposal for regular town halls, which would have likely elevated the political debate, because they did not serve his interests. But these are small things compared with the transformation that McCain has undergone.

In this way, I do think McCain has a point about America not knowing the real Obama. But to make the point honestly, McCain first has to face up with the fact that when he faced the big test, he took the easy way out.

UPDATE: My debate with Ambinder continues here.