Barack Obama's campaign took a risk this week when it decided to aggressively combat an inflammatory pro-McCain television commercial put on the air on August 21 by a conservative, tax-exempt 501c4 group, the American Issues Project (AIP).
The television spot highlights Obama's link to Bill Ayers, an unrepentant leader of the Weather Underground - an organization responsible for a series of 1960s and '70s bombings of facilities linked to the Department of Defense and the Vietnam War.
Determined not to be "Swift Boated" as John F. Kerry was in 2004, the Obama campaign has gone to court to seek a restraining order against AIP to prohibit further showing of the ad, and is also running its own counter commercial.
As the controversy over the AIP ad has intensified, it has begun to receive extensive free media coverage on outlets ranging from FOX to NPR and across the Internet raising a basic question: Has the Obama strategy backfired and produced more coverage of a controversial but virtually unknown figure, Ayers, than would have been the case if the campaign had done nothing at all?
The AIP ad goes as follows:
(Announcer) Beyond the speeches, how much do you know about Barack Obama? What does he really believe? Consider this: United 93 never hit the Capitol on 9/11. But the Capitol was bombed 30 years before by an American terrorist group called Weather Underground that declared war on the U.S., targeting the Capitol, the Pentagon, police stations and more. (Text on screen: 'Bomb In Capitol Causes Wide Damage' -- New York Times, 3/2/71; Associated Press, 7/24/98; Wanted By Local And Federal Authorities -- Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, 2001; Washington Post, 4/18/08)
"One of the group's leaders, William Ayers, admits to the bombings, proudly saying later we 'didn't do enough.' (Text on screen: New York Times, 9/11/01) Some members of the group Ayers founded even went on to kill police. (Text on screen: "'Weather' Fugitive Is Seized In Killings' -- Associated Press, 4/17/08; New York Times, 10/22/81) But Barack Obama is friends with Ayers, defending him as 'respectable' and 'mainstream'."
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton argued: "The reason we responded to it was because of the fact that they were actually spending money on an attack that we weren't going to let remain unanswered. Folks aren't going to lie about Barack Obama without forceful response."
Another campaign source contended that it was crucial to reply in order to demonstrate to other conservative organizations that every legal action possible will be taken and that any third party group preparing to attack the Democratic nominee will face civil court challenges, a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and, if possible, criminal charges.
The president of the American Issues Project, Ed Martin, countered that his group has so far come out well ahead.
"We definitely expected the ad to generate discussion in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia in which it aired, but the attention drawn from the Obama campaign, the media and American voters has quickly raised this story to the national level," said Martin. "Sen. Obama's heavy-handed response to the ad has definitely misfired. And the more the Obama campaign attempts to bully the ad off the air with legal threats and intimidation, the more voters are wondering what he has to hide."
Even on the conservative website thenextright, Soren Dayton wrote:
"I don't get it. Some outside group runs a weird, false ad linking Barack Obama to Bill Ayers. And Obama responds. But maybe they are so afraid of becoming John Kerry that they overdid it. And not just a little....This is just inexplicable. They are jumping at shadows. That doesn't make smart politics.
A number of Republicans believe that Obama's ties to Ayers will prove very damaging to the Democratic candidate's campaign. Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, held an introductory fundraiser for Obama at their Hyde Park home when Obama first ran for the Illinois State Senate. Ayers, Dohrn, Obama, and Ayers' late father Thomas G. Ayers, a longtime civic and business leader and the chairman and CEO of Chicago COM Ed (now Exelon), served on mutually reinforcing - and entirely above-board - Chicago non-profits and philanthropies, ranging from the Developing Communities Project (DCP), which hired Obama, at 24, as an organizer on Chicago's economically depressed South Side, to the Woods, Joyce, and Gamaliel foundations 40 odd years after the Weather Underground "flamed out".
The Obama counter commercial to the AIP ad replies:
(Announcer): With all our problems, why is John McCain talking about the sixties, trying to link Barack Obama to radical Bill Ayers? McCain knows Obama denounced Ayers' crimes, committed when Obama was just eight years old. Let's talk about standing up for America today. John McCain wants to spend $10 Billion a month in Iraq, tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, selling out American workers. John McCain, just more of the same.
Only time will tell whether the Obama campaign's strategy is correct. In a separate instance, the Obama campaign is using aggressive public tactics to crush the credibility of a hostile book, Jerome Corsi's The Obama Nation -- which despite Obama's efforts has now been on the New York Times best seller list for three weeks. At the same time, the book is receiving less media attention - and has been judged far less reliable -- than its right-wing sponsors had hoped.
In this case, if surveys show that the Bill Ayers issue is getting traction and is an increasing liability to Obama, then the costs may have been higher than the benefits. If, however, no other well-financed conservative groups emerge to attack the Democrat, then the strategy may well have been worth it.