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Smear Campaigning Should Be Beneath John McCain

William Ayers and voter fraud. Cindy McCain on the attack. Say it ain’t so, John.

The economy is in a tailspin, and so is John McCain. Our retirement plans and college savings accounts are shrinking, and McCain is shrinking right with them. He’s not just on the verge of getting clobbered in the election. He’s on the verge of becoming an object of utter ridicule. It isn’t pretty to watch. Even for a Democrat.

It’s bad enough that 100 percent of the ads McCain is running are negative. That’s a sign of a campaign in free fall, with nothing affirmative to say and nothing positive to offer; a campaign that can’t win with the support it has now, that needs to find some way to move voters out of the other guy’s camp.

What’s worse is the content of the negative ads. They aren’t about policy and issues. They aren’t about what’s wrong with Obama’s economic plans, much less what’s right about McCain’s. They aren’t about why Barack Obama would be a bad president, much less why McCain would be a good one.

They’re screaming bloody murder that Barack Obama left a phone message two years ago for a guy who engaged in radical activity when Barack Obama was 8 years old and living in Indonesia. Ayers, who is a neighbor of Obama’s, even had some kind of meet-and-greet for him 13 years ago, when Obama was running for state Senate, making him one of about a million people who’ve opened their homes and their checkbooks to the guy.

Imagine that. We’re in the midst of an international economic crisis and the McCain folks are trying to make hay out of what a guy who hosted a reception for Obama 13 years ago was doing 20 years before that.

Is William Ayers the best the McCain camp can do? The ads claim that Obama’s relationship with Ayres is somehow proof of his dangerous ambition. But it’s McCain’s blind ambition, or his campaign’s bad judgment, that is painfully on display in the newest ads.

U.S. Senator John McCain tried to use his influence to help a crook named Charlie Keating, one of the worst of the saving and loan robbers, a man who ripped off everyone in sight, including American taxpayers. That’s OK. Forgive and forget. But serving on a foundation board with a guy who engaged in radical politics decades ago? That’s a voting issue? Desperate. Dumb. You want to convince voters that you’re totally out of touch with their lives, and their fears, this is the way to do it.

I have always respected John McCain, even if I did not always agree with him. I respected him when, in the wake of his role in the Keating Five mess, he stood up to support reform of the system of campaign finance that gives crooks like Charlie Keating more influence than they should ever have. I respected him for standing up against the politicization of judicial appointments, and for standing up to the talk show hosts who have so cowed Republicans to try to do something sensible and fair on the immigration issue.

I especially respected him in 2000, when he should have been the Republicans’ nominee but for the dirty tricks of the Bush campaign. He was done in by an ugly smear campaign. Now he’s trying to run one.

It should be beneath him. There’s a reason McCain didn’t raise Ayers’ name once in the three sometimes stultifying hours of one-on-one debate between the candidates thus far. It would have made him look small and silly. It does now.

It’s also a waste of time. This isn’t that kind of election. This is the kind of election where worrying about Willie Horton would be a luxury for most people, let alone William Ayers. Does McCain not understand that? Is he really so out-of-touch? Being out of touch in the midst of a crisis that is destroying our economic security is a whole lot worse, politically speaking, than being on a foundation board with a '60s radical.

Then there’s voter fraud, which seems to be Item No. 2 on the Republican talking points, right behind William Ayers. John McCain should be so lucky that voter fraud could be a decisive issue. He’s looking at being humiliated, not being robbed.

Obviously, voter fraud is a bad thing. Election officials should do everything they can to make sure that this is a clean and fair election. But elections are a little like criminal trials. Defendants deserve a fair trial, not a perfect one. Perfection is not a realistic standard. You don’t need a perfect trial to have a fair result. Ditto for elections, especially those that are not going to be decided by razor thin margins.

If ACORN gave a guy cigarettes to register to vote more than once, by all means, punish ACORN and the guy. By all means, scrutinize suspicious entries on the voter rolls. But let’s get serious. This election is not going to be decided by people voting early and often, or by scamsters selling out for cigarettes.

It’s going to be decided by millions of Americans who are worried about gyrations in the market, not in the voter rolls. John McCain and his supporters should be focused on what they’ve got to offer to legitimate voters who are legitimately worried about their economic futures, not about votes for cigarette scams.

Finally, there’s the matter of the wives. You don’t need to read the polls, or even follow the collapse in the Dow, to know which way the political wind is blowing.

Just listen to the wives. Michelle Obama is the model of good will. Was she offended that John McCain called her husband “that one”? She barely even heard. She was paying attention to the undecided voters. She doesn’t let phrases bother her. Her husband likes and respects John McCain, and always has. Do you know what confidence sounds like? It sounds like that.

Cindy McCain is another story. Accusing Barack Obama of endangering her son by voting against one of the military funding bills doesn’t make all that much sense, given that her husband also voted against one of the funding bills, in his case because it included a timeline for withdrawal. It sounds mean-spirited, and desperate.

It’s one thing to lose an election. That happens to half the people who get as far as McCain and Obama have. It’s another to lose your integrity in the process. John McCain has worked long and hard to build a reputation as a man of honor, a man who puts country first. He’s in danger of losing all that in the process of losing this election.

It’s too bad, not for Democrats, but for a decent man. And it’s a waste, given that McCain’s best shot, his only shot, is to prove that he is up to the challenges America faces right now.

Just when he needs to be big, he has never seemed smaller.


Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.