From Willie Horton To William Ayers

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Let's watch some vicious right-wing attack ads:


Okay, what was that ad about? "White racism!" cry the liberals. But table that argument for a moment: What else was it about? Crime. Take out the racial element, and you're still left with a devastatingly effective ad for an era - the late 1980s - when crime rates were near an all-time high.

Here's another one, just as infamous:


Again, what's this ad about? White racism? Again, table that debate - what else? Jobs. The Helms-Gantt Senate race took place in 1990, at a time when the Reagan boom was giving way to the Bush-era recession - and when North Carolina's manufacturing sector, in particular, was taking a big hit - and the ad's effectiveness depended almost entirely on its very direct connection to N.C. voters' economic anxieties.

As regular readers know (and are probably tired of hearing about), one of the many things Grand New Party attempts to do is explode the notion - made famous by Thomas Frank, but really a near-constant in American political analysis; it shows up, for instance, in an uncharacteristically lazy Francis Fukuyama essay in this week's Newsweek - that America's working class is uniquely vulnerable to purely cultural and symbolic appeals from conservative politicians. Of course symbolic appeals have resonance in American politics, but that resonance is hardly limited to working-class America; more importantly, many of the issues that liberal pundits like to call "symbolic" - from crime to guns to affirmative action to "family values" - resonate with working-class voters precisely because they're perceived as having socioeconomic as well as purely symbolic consequences. In reality, and contrary to a great deal of conventional wisdom, the Republican Party didn't win working-class votes by stoking the culture war and ignoring everything else; it built a majority because a lot of its economic policies did, in fact, benefit working America as well as the rich (ask most "Joe Sixpacks" whether they'd prefer the Reagan and Clinton and even the Bush expansions, wage stagnation or no, to the economic landscape of the Carter years, and I'm pretty sure you'd get more yeses than no), and because Republican politicians became extremely adept at linking the culture war to issues like public safety, social stability, and economic security. Sometimes this linkage was fair, and sometimes it was a stretch - affirmative action obviously wasn't the biggest threat to a North Carolina mill worker's job in 1990 - but in the GOP's most effective campaigns it was always there, and always crucial to conservative success.  

But when I listen to Republicans talk about "taking the gloves off" where Barack Obama's relationship to William Ayers is concerned, I hear the sound of conservative failure - the sound, say, of the 1992 campaign, when George H.W. Bush went to the culture-war well in the midst of a recession and ended up losing to a philandering draft-dodger even so. The Ayers connection is completely fair game for the McCain campaign, as is the Jeremiah Wright connection: Both are windows into the political world Barack Obama moved in, and the "no enemies to the left" caution with which he navigated Chicago politics. I tend to think that both connections tell you a little more about Obama's tendency to be accommodating, and to tack with the prevailing political winds which ever way they blow, than they do about his own innermost convictions - I think he's more of a "go along, get along" guy than a crypto-socialist - but reasonable people can disagree on this point, and either way the connections are perfectly appropriate material for talking points, speeches and campaign ads. (And yes, by the same token, there's nothing unfair or dirty about the Obama campaign raising some of McCain's dubious past associations either.)

But Bill Ayers can't win you an election - he can't come anywhere close, in fact - because unlike Willie Horton, Bill Ayers isn't tied to any of the issues that are uppermost in voters' minds. He tells you something about Obama's judgment, maybe, and his ideological biases, maybe - and yes, yes, with enough innuendo and doomy music, you can imply that he tells you something about Obama's softness on Islamist terrorism as well. But think about the directness of the Willie Horton ad. America has a crime problem. You don't feel safe in your own home. And Michael Dukakis want to make it worse. Think about the directness of the "white hands" ad. The economy is tanking, and the Democrats want companies to hire underqualified minorities, instead of hiring you. And then think about the implications of any Ayers ad the McCain team could cut. 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.

I'm pretty sure that's a losing message. And unless there's some way I haven't thought of to link the Weather Underground to the global stock market, or the subprime mess, or the cost of health care, or anything else that's actually high on the voting public's list of priorities, this "gloves off, dammit!" strategy will only serve to confirm the public's perception that John McCain - and the ticket he heads, and the party he leads - are completely, utterly, and hopelessly out of touch.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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