In a recent column in The New York Times, “The Testing Time,” David Brooks argued that the presidential candidates ought to be expounding on how to stabilize global capital flows rather than engaging in nasty, guilt-by-association advertisements.
Tut-tutting is what Brooks is paid to do. Political practitioners, as opposed to lofty columnists, know better than to discard two of the most potent tools in their arsenal: guilt by association, and its opposite, honor by association. The connection may be misleading or fallacious, but few tactics are more powerful than associating a candidate with another human face that is widely reviled or esteemed. In this manner complex issues can be rendered instantly comprehensible.
And if the company a candidate keeps is one of the best ways to frame the choices in an campaign, a case can be made that the 2008 election figuratively pits an education professor named Bill Ayers (born 1944) against a Wall Street financier named Henry Kravis (also born 1944). Barack Obama can be tied to Ayers primarily because they served together on several boards back when the Democratic nominee was a community organizer in Chicago. And John McCain is linked to Henry Kravis because Kravis is one of the largest individual contributors and “bundlers” to the GOP nominee’s campaign. The contest of Ayres v. Kravis will have a lot to do with whether Obama or McCain prevails in the November election.
Until recently, Obama only engaged in high-road association politics: presenting himself as Camelot’s heir and seeking to keep McCain joined at the hip with George W. Bush, who will probably go down as the most unpopular president in modern history, befitting his standing as the worst. McCain, meanwhile, left association politics to surrogates so long as the race was tight and the conversation revolved around national security and Obama’s relative inexperience. But now that the panic of ‘08 has put McCain’s back against the wall, the GOP nominee has dropped the pretense of having others raise the Obama-Ayers connection. Obama has started to respond in kind, and will probably do more if McCain’s new tack shows evidence of working.
If McCain somehow manages to turn the election into a referendum about Obama’s association with Bill Ayers and a Weatherman’s ‘60s disregard for capitalism, the Democrats’ chances of re-taking the White House shrink. If Obama is able to maintain the focus on the Republicans’ free-market fetish and disregard for capital, McCain is likely to be swept away.
Ayers’s Disregard for Capitalism
Anyone who was politically sentient in the 1960s will recognize why an association with Ayers is fraught with danger for Obama. Ayers embodies the toxic, infantile politics of the decade baby boomers came of age. Like so many self-styled revolutionaries, Ayers was a son of privilege—his father would become CEO of Commonwealth Edison, the largest electric utility in Illinois—who presumed to know and speak for the working class and America’s oppressed.
It is mind-boggling to re-read the sanctimonious and lefter-than-thou crap Ayers and his Weather Underground comrades, who never numbered more than a few hundred, labored over. The avowed goal of the Weathermen (who spontaneously took their name from a Bob Dylan lyric) was “a classless world,” meaning nothing less than the destruction of “pig Amerika’s” capitalist, imperialist society.
“We are within the heartland of a world-wide monster . . . . The US empire . . . channels wealth, based upon the labor and resources of the rest of the world, into the United States,” read one declaration in June 1969. “[A]ll of the Holiday Inns, all of Hertz’s automobiles, your television set, car, and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree, to the people of the rest of the world.”
The Vietnam War underscored to the Weathermen that the United States was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany, and thus the most extreme measures were justified in a state run by war criminals such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. “Militancy was the standard by which we measured our aliveness,” as Ayers later put it. In retrospect, it’s hard to decide whether Ayers and his ilk were demented or delusional. But they were clearly narcissistic and odious.
If it were just a matter of a few radicals setting off bombs while vilifying “Amerika,” the Weather Underground would have been forgotten a long time ago. But stripped of the perverse rhetoric, the Weather mentality of denigrating the state, if not America itself, became a staple within an influential faction of the Democratic Party—what Republicans would gleefully seize upon as a “blame America first” mentality. This view alienated a large portion of the New Deal electoral coalition, mainly working-class whites, and brought about the eclipse of liberalism with its hard-won notions about the state’s role in providing for the common welfare and America’s role abroad.