Putting Ayers back on the table?

PUTTING AYERS BACK ON THE TABLE?…. As of this morning, it seemed the McCain campaign, after telegraphing an aggressive attack, had decided to move away from making the rest of the campaign about Bill Ayers. McCain decided not to mention him last night, and some of his top aides — including Nicole Wallace and Steve Schmidt — indicated that the issue was effectively off the table.

This, of course, sounded like a rare sign of intelligent life at McCain campaign headquarters. In the midst of a financial meltdown and deep voter/consumer anxiety, shifting the campaign focus to Obama’s tenuous ties to a ’60s-era radical seems like political suicide. That the campaign’s cooler heads were prevailing made sense.

But I spoke too soon. Apparently, there was some fine print: McCain won’t focus on Ayers, but his campaign will.

Indeed, this afternoon, the McCain campaign released a statement from John M. Murtagh, who said his family was allegedly targeted by Ayers.

“Barack Obama may have been a child when William Ayers was plotting attacks against U.S. targets — but I was one of those targets. Barack Obama’s friend tried to kill my family.”

Now, there are a couple of ways to look at this. Even if we assume Murtagh’s account is accurate, and I don’t have reason to doubt his version of events, the truth remains that Obama and Ayers are not “friends.” Murtagh is allowing himself to be used to launch a sleazy attack, but whatever turmoil his family faced several decades ago, it does not justify misleading voters.

But in the broader context, we see that the McCain campaign wants to have its cake and eat it too. McCain isn’t going to smear Obama with Ayers attacks, and Palin may soon stop with her own Ayers-related attacks, but McCain/Palin staffers will continue to shovel the sleaze, executing the strategy we’ve been hearing about for days.

As Christopher Orr put it, “One way to describe this kind of faux deniability would be as rank cynicism. Another would be as sheer cowardice.”

Wallace, a veteran of Karl Rove’s White House operation, told Fox News last night, “[N]obody in America sitting around the kitchen table trying to figure out if they’re gonna be able to make the mortgage or worried about the price of groceries or price of gas, nobody cares about Mr. Ayers. Neither do we.” Less than a day later, it was Wallace’s campaign office trumpeting a new Ayers attack.

The campaign’s message, in other words, is about as incoherent on this subject as it is on policy issues. Regardless, watch for this new dynamic to pick up steam — McCain hopes to smear Obama, but he’ll do his best to keep the attacks free of his fingerprints.

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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.