Now, I am no fan of the sort of politics that this campaign is being dragged into. In an ideal world, I would prefer that Obama not be pulled down to McCain's level, that he stay above the fray and trust the American people to be able to figure out the difference between legitimate ideological and philosophical differences and smear attacks not related to the truth. But, history shows that such attacks work (see, e.g., Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, ca. 2004).
Indeed, as McCain's own advisers are saying, they are bringing up things like William Ayres, because if the story is the economy, the issues, they lose. They want to make the story, "ooh, Obama is a shady character. He's different than you and me. *shh--he might be a secret muslim and is black*" rather than McCain's economic policies.
So, William Ayres. Yep, he and Obama live in the same neighborhood, were on a charity board together, and Obama once went to coffee at his house. Is this "palling around"? Nope. And, in the syntax of Palin's accusation, there is an inherent argument about why Obama "pals around" with Ayres. Because he thinks this country is so imperfect, right? So, her argument is that the reason Obama moved to Hyde Park, the reason he went to coffee that day, and the reason he served on that board was his dislike of America. lol.
But, it seems unwise, both from a moral and a strategic standpoint, for McCain to start this "guilt by association" fight. For every thing they can bring up about Obama, McCain has something equally bad, if not worse.
As for William Ayres, there's always McCain's buddy G. Gordon Liddy, who, besides his betrayal of his country during Watergate thinks his country is so imperfect as to tell people how to kill law enforcement officers (shoot them in the heads where there are no vests to protect them) when they come for your guns.
There's also Sarah and Todd's affection for the extremist, secessionist Alaskan Independence Party, which he was a member of until 2002 and which she attended conventions of and recently, as governor, recorded a welcome speech for. Their founder is as anti-American as they come. A sample of examples: "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government." or "And I won't be buried under their damn flag. I'll be buried in Dawson. And when Alaska is an independent nation they can bring my bones home." or "I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." The AIP persuaded the government of Iran to support its cause of independence. As Salon.com put it, "Imagine the uproar if Michelle Obama was revealed to have joined a black nationalist party whose founder preached armed secession from the United States and who enlisted the government of Iran in his cause?"
There's also McCain's membership on the U.S. Council for World Freedom, a right-wing group that aided central American death squads. He sat on the board of an organization that supported terrorist activities.
Now, to my point: I have no interest in making a campaign about these things. (Note that I did not include the Keating Five scandal here, because I think that is a legitimate issue in how it relates to the current financial crisis. It actually has to do with public policy rather than vague attacks on someone's character through guilt by association). Do I think that Sarah Palin wants to secede from the union, that she hates America's "damn flag"? No. Do I think John McCain supports killing American officials? Nope. Do I think much of this is relevant, beyond questions of judgment in who one affiliates with? Not in the slightest.
My point is that I believe it is a strategic error for McCain to go this route. It opens up a bunch of doors for Obama (or at least groups that support Obama) to bring up these things. And then the election becomes all about "Obama is a secret Muslim terrorist." "Well, McCain supports terrorist activities." And not about the economy, the war in Iraq, or any other issues that actually make a difference to Americans.
I suspect, of course, that the Obama stuff will "stick" much more effectively than anything Obama could point out about McCain's past associations. You see, the reason that the William Ayres stuff works has nothing to do with Ayres himself and everything to do with Obama. It's something for our doubts about this black man with the funny name to latch on to, something concrete. A story suggesting that Obama doesn't love his country has appeal because it is able to speak to the things that are unconscious and unspoken in our fears about him. So, in the end, perhaps it is a strategically viable route for McCain. Any negatives he gets for not focusing on the issues and for having his own shady background discussed may pale in comparison to the payoff in doubts about Obama. These attacks on him resonate far more than they would with McCain because it taps into a deeper cultural frame about Obama.