The campaigns swap personal attacks

Thomas Ash
6 October 2008

Today was a day of traded blows in the US election campaign. Since Saturday, Sarah Palin has been attacking Barack Obama for "palling around with terrorists" - specifically William Ayers, one-time member of the Weathermen, a militant organisation in the sixties. Ayers only managed to bomb a statue, but his fellow Weathermen bombed the Pentagon and later killed two policemen in an armed robbery. Obama was a young child when all this happened, but later met Ayers, who had turned himself in after years on the run, escaped punishment due to tainted evidence, and gained acceptance in Chicago's political community working on educational reform. They served together on the board of an anti-poverty group, and Ayers hosted a campaign event for Obama early in his political career. There is no indication that they had any closer relationship than this, but the connection is damaging to Obama, not least because on 11 September, 2001, the New York Times published an interview in which Ayers said: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."

In what it is portraying as a response, the Obama campaign recently launched the website keatingeconomics.com, featuring a documentary which highlights McCain's involvement in the 1989 Savings and Loan scandal. McCain was a member of the so-called "Keating Five": five Senators accused of improperly pressuring regulators to ease their pressure on Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. The Association later collapsed in the midst of a financial crisis uncannily reminiscent of the one we are experiencing today, and Keating went to jail. McCain had received significant campaign contributions from Keating, but the Senate Ethics committee cleared him of any wrongdoing, merely rebuking him for "poor judgement". William Black, one of the regulators with whom McCain met on behalf of Keating, disputes whether that was sufficient in Obama's video.

Who is the more damaging association, Ayers or Keating? McCain's actions were (surely?) worse, but he has long apologised for them, claiming that they motivated him to atone by pushing for Campaign Finance Reform. On the other hand, they have a new relevance in light of recent events, and help Obama to cast him as a friend of deregulation and Wall Street. Meanwhile, it is hard to buy the Obama campaign's claim that he was initially unaware of Ayers' past, given that it was common knowledge in Chicago political circles. People can disagree as to whether Ayers ought to have been shunned (for my part I find his evident acceptance in Chicago society somewhat distasteful). But though this attack did not work for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, it clearly has the potential to damage perceptions of Barack Obama's character, and, given the dire situation the Republicans find themselves in, that may be their best bet.

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