A Very Tired Republican Playbook

Washington Matters

A Very Tired Republican Playbook

Does this sound familiar? "Level with the American people." If it sounds like John McCain demanding that Barack Obama come clean about his supposed close ties to Weather Underground leader and bomber turned education professor Bill Ayers, you're right. It does sound like that.

But actually, it was President George H.W. Bush in an October campaign 16 years ago against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton insinuating that there was something sinister about a trip Clinton took to Moscow as a student in 1969.

"I don't want to tell you what I really think, because I don't have the facts. But to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia [in 1968], not remember who you saw?" Bush said on Larry King Live Oct. 7, 1992.

Right down to introductory disavowal, Bush circa '92 sounds exactly like McCain '08: "I don't care about an old, washed-up, unrepentant terrorist, but I think the American people ... need to know the facts about their relationship. And obviously, that's not forthcoming."

Just as there is and never was any evidence that Clinton's trip to Moscow was more than a college kid taking a tour of Europe as part of his stint at Oxford, there is no evidence that Obama was any more deeply involved with Ayers than many other Chicago politicians and policymakers of both parties. But that didn't stop Bush from raising the question -- or some of his supporters and operatives spreading even wilder unsubstantiated rumors about Clinton, like how he considered renouncing his citizenship while abroad. Not terribly far off from the rumors that have raced around the Internet for months about Obama's religion, his citizenship, even his patriotism.

The Bush campaign also tried to portray Clinton, who had fashioned himself as a political moderate, and his wife as much further to the left than they acknowledged -- to the point of being anti-American. Bush repeatedly pointed to Clinton's participation in anti-Vietnam War rallies in London in the late 1960s as evidence of a lack of patriotism. That should sound familiar, too. McCain and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin have repeatedly, in public and in mass telephone calls, tried to raise questions about Obama's love of country. In stretching the Ayers-Obama ties further than they had been stretched before, Palin said, "Our opponent though, is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.''

There are parallels here that go beyond the nature of the attacks that are worth noting as well. First, these attacks both intensified in October -- and the attackers were behind.

Second, specifics of the attack -- or truth and accuracy -- don't really matter. The point of Bush wondering aloud -- before a national television audience -- about what Clinton was doing in Moscow in 1969 wasn't about Clinton's travels. It was a kind of guilt by association that didn't even involve associates, just a country that in 1969, but not in 1992, was a communist foe of the United States. In the same way, McCain is right -- he doesn't really care about a washed up terrorist. Ayers is just an excuse to use the words "Obama" and "terrorist" just a few syllables apart.

Third, the flashpoints for these attacks are rooted in one of the most tortured periods of American history -- the late 1960s. Bush was trying to win by hanging the Vietnam War and the youth rebellion of the '60s -- and all the still festering resentments held by many Americans. Clinton, benefitting from a weak economy in the same way Obama is now, fought back by saying Bush was seeking to distract voters. That should sound familiar, too.

And I guess this is a dynamic we are stuck with, at least as long as there are people alive who can bristle at shock phrases of 40 years ago -- Vietnam, domestic terrorist, Black Panthers -- and there is some artifice for using them. Bush didn't catch up to Clinton by using those touch points -- but that didn't deter McCain from using similar October tactics. What makes us think that, should McCain lose to Obama in just over a week, that the failure of those same tactics again would prevent anyone from trying again four or eight or 12 years from now?