What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Ayers?

During a Chicago Public Radio discussion yesterday, Public Affairs host Jeff Berkowitz made the argument that Barack Obama's association with Bill Ayers "reflects bad judgment" and that John McCain should have broached the issue during the debate Tuesday night. "I think it's worth a shot," Berkowitz said.

Tying Ayers to Obama's "judgment" in this way is commonplace on the right at the moment. Most prominently, Sarah Palin said on the stump this week that the relationship "goes to the heart of judgment of a person." Right-wing bloggers and conservative pundits have been arguing the same for months.

But judgment is a broad and subjective concept, one that can be construed and extrapolated in myriad directions. So as more and more commentators take to the airwaves to rail against Obama's faulty "judgment" in working with Ayers, I'd like to see hosts and anchors ask them to explain what this relationship supposedly tells us about how he would govern as president.

To put it another way, I'd like to hear some of the hypothetical "I told you so" moments that Republicans envision occurring if Obama is elected. What do they foresee happening in an Obama administration that will lead them to say, "You should have listened to us when we were hollering about Ayers"?

If their suggestion really is that Obama is a sleeper radical, then they should be forced to articulate those views out loud. If they really think that on January 21, 2009, Obama is going to invite Ayers over to the White House so they can set off fire bombs throughout the West Wing, I want to hear them say it.

If they believe that Ayers is going to advise President Obama on matters of national policy, I want to hear them say it.

If they believe that the Ayers relationship signals that Obama will depart from his center-left legislative record and implement a radical policy agenda, I want to hear them say it.

If they're simply arguing that this association proves Obama is a poor politician, I want to hear them say it.

If they believe the Ayers issue will manifest itself in other ways, I'm all ears.

The underlying premise of the broad "judgment" claims boils down to this: "He's not who he says he is." And as subtext, it's powerful stuff. But when said out loud, those who support Obama can respond directly. For instance, if a Republican were to publicly argue that Obama's 15-year plan has been to hide his radical views until he reached the presidency, one could challenge this logic: If that's the case, why would he have publicly associated himself with Ayers in the first place? Wouldn't he have known that would blow his cover?

Further, when such specific scenarios are articulated, voters can assess them head-on. They can decide for themselves if these concerns are reasonable or paranoid. My guess is many would opt for the latter. And it seems the Republicans agree.

(Cross-posted at Progress Illinois)