Sean Hannity couldn't understand why his essentially nonstop efforts to put Barack Obama in bed with William Ayers weren't taking hold. He seemed bewildered by this.
But it isn't hard to understand. For one thing, despite his extraordinary efforts, neither Hannity nor any of his confederates has succeeded in establishing any strong tie between Obama and Ayers. I'm sure I'm not the only guy who has served on boards without asking any questions about the backgrounds of my fellow board members. They may all have been child rapists, for all I know.
For another, once a guy like Ayers is loose in society, what's the best way to deal with him? You can't lock him up because the government bungled the case. You could try to make a permanent pariah out of him, but what would that accomplish other than reinforce the notion that violence is the only way for him to deal with a society he dislikes? Why not get some useful work out of him -- which requires that somebody hire him and that other people work with him and maybe even shake his hand once or twice. From Obama's point of view, what's more important: helping reform schools or risking a taint on his political career?
But the real reason Ayers hasn't worked as a political tactic is because of a point I have argued before: This sort of thing works only to the extent that it reinforces existing public perceptions about the candidate involved. The "potatoe" gaffe was devastating for Dan Quayle because people already had decided he wasn't very smart. Once Gerald Ford got a reputation as an awkward fellow, every head bump made the news. When it looked like George H.W. Bush had never seen a checkout scanner before, it fed the perception that he was an out-of-touch elitist.
But not even Hannity has ever been able to uncover a single word that Obama has said that makes him sound sympathetic to terrorists. People just aren't buying it. And every presidential debate has helped establish that Obama is a sane, rational, pragmatic and careful politician. It just isn't credible that he would rather be building bombs.
For the same reason, attempts to link John McCain to G. Gordon Liddy won't go anywhere either, other than to further neutralize the Ayers attack. Liddy is an unrepentant felon, who arguably did more to hurt the country than Ayers ever did, and McCain's ties to Liddy are at least as tight as Obama's to Ayers. But nobody thinks John McCain is G. Gordon Liddy. It just doesn't matter.
Still, it was pretty entertaining to watch Chris Matthews on "Hardball" last night trying to get a McCain spokesman to admit that Sarah Palin has been attacking Obama's patriotism by suggesting that he finds America "imperfect" enough that he pals around with terrorists. The spokesman kept saying that the issue was not Obama's patriotism but his judgment. Matthews kept insisting that he admit the obvious: The attack was on his patriotism.
I wish I had counted how many times Matthews asked the question. I wish he had asked it a hundred times. The spokesman never gave in, but everybody watching knew he was lying.