Guilt by guilt

GUILT BY GUILT…. As my friend Hilzoy explained very well overnight, the Obama campaign, which has been exceedingly cautious about tackling the Keating Five scandal and John McCain’s role in it, will broach the subject this week, principally in response to McCain’s new found interest in ridiculous guilt-by-association attacks. I wanted to add a couple of related tidbits.

We got a glimpse this morning of the full-length documentary the Obama campaign put together on McCain and the Keating Five scandal. The full piece will be available at noon eastern, but this 30-second trailer suggests it’s going to be pretty damaging. [Updated: this is now a clip of the actual documentary.]

There is, of course, a chance that the criticisms of McCain for his role in this scandal may take the Obama campaign off its game. If McCain wants to attack Obama for his tenuous associations, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Obama shouldn’t wrestle the proverbial pig, and should instead stick to his message about the economy.

But in some ways, that’s what makes the Keating Five story so salient right now. First, we are, after all, talking about a scandal involving major bank failures, financial fraud and greed, and political ineptitude. Sound familiar? Given recent events, McCain’s ethics scandal is entirely relevant on a purely substantive level. As Josh Marshall recently put it, “Let’s face it. On major economy-imperiling financial scandals brought about by lax regulation and help from lobbyist-encrusted politicians, McCain really is the candidate of experience.”

Second, as Ben Smith noted, “[T]he story of McCain and Keating is not guilt by association; it’s guilt by guilt. McCain’s problem isn’t that he knew Keating in activities unconnected to his wrongdoing; it’s that Keating, in the course of his wrongdoing, gave McCain money and tried, with a bit of success, to use him to influence regulators. It’s also part of the case Obama’s making that McCain has opposed necessarily financial regulations.”

And third, I think the two campaigns are approaching these tactics very differently. For McCain, smearing Obama has become the principal goal of his campaign. For Obama, raising McCain’s Keating scandal is primarily a defensive move. The plan, it seems, is to give the media a counter-weight — for every story about McCain attacking Obama for people he barely knows, the Obama campaign wants to offer reporters a chance to offer “balance.”

This is, at its core, a policy message, and a fairly devastating one at that. McCain really did pressure federal regulators to go easy on a major donor who had business dealings with his wife. McCain really was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for his awful judgment.

And now voters are going to hear about it.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.