Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ayers & Keating: One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

Dust off your SAT skills, boys and girls. Here’s today’s quiz:

Question: OBAMA : AYERS as McCAIN :

If you picked c) Keating, you would be right – but mostly wrong.

Going on attack this week, Sarah Palin dusted off the old story about Obama’s association with Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers. In response, the Democrats are talking about McCain’s involvement with Charles Keating and the savings and loan scandal.

The media picked up on the symmetry of Obama’s approach — one old fact deserves another —but reporters are missing the point. By mentioning Ayers and Keating in one breath, like this AP headline, Campaigns Do Battle Over Ayers, Keating, the media falsely implies that both men are chapters from history books, both irrelevant factoids dredged up by campaigners in order to damage their opponents.

The simple fact is that Keating matters and Ayers doesn’t. One of these things is not like the other.

On Saturday, The New York Times delved into the relationship between Obama and Ayers, finding that “the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers.”

A Past Renounced

Obama was eight when Ayers engaged in his infamous acts of terrorism; by the time the two met in 1995, Ayers had long since renounced his past and was working as a highly respected educator in Chicago.

Since earning a doctorate in education at Columbia in 1987, Ayers has been a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, authored or edited 15 books, and is an advocate of school reform.

“He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally,” Mayor Richard M. Daley told an interviewer this week, explaining that he has long consulted Ayers on school issues.

To put another way, there is no connection whatsoever between Ayers’ wrongdoing and Obama, who was eight at the time. The Senator not involved in any way.

The logic behind the GOP argument is tenuous. Obama “is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” So, the Obama-Ayers connection reflects on the Illinois senator’s “character” because, McCain and Palin assert, the association lends Obama’s credibility to Ayers’ past sins or because Obama, the responsible, patriotic politician, ought to have shunned Ayers based on his past.

This is preposterous.

The Ayers that Obama met and worked with isn’t the same person as the 1960s radical that the McCain campaign recalls so vividly. People change. The world isn’t black and white. Pick your cliché. Obama didn’t work with Ayers to reform education because he hates America and thinks it’s “imperfect.” They worked together to improve the education of children.

In fact, Obama was willing to work with someone who didn’t have a squeaky clean past toward a goal of getting something good accomplished; in this case, for Chicago school children.

Keating’s Crime Connects McCain

The Times explained the Keating scandal last February.

During Mr. McCain’s four years in the House, Mr. Keating, his family and his business associates contributed heavily to his political campaigns. The banker gave Mr. McCain free rides on his private jet, a violation of Congressional ethics rules. They vacationed together in the Bahamas. And in 1986, the year Mr. McCain was elected to the Senate, his wife joined Mr. Keating in investing in an Arizona shopping mall.

Mr. Keating had taken over the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and used its federally insured deposits to gamble on risky real estate and other investments. He pressed Mr. McCain and other lawmakers to help hold back federal banking regulators.

For years, Mr. McCain complied. At Mr. Keating’s request, he wrote several letters to regulators, introduced legislation and helped secure a Keating nominee to a banking regulatory board.

By early 1987, though, the thrift was careering toward disaster. Mr. McCain agreed to join several senators, eventually known as the Keating Five, for two private meetings with regulators to urge them to ease up. “Why didn’t I fully grasp the unusual appearance of such a meeting?” Mr. McCain later lamented in his memoir.

When Lincoln went bankrupt in 1989 — one of the biggest collapses of the savings and loan crisis, costing taxpayers $3.4 billion — the Keating Five became infamous. The scandal sent Mr. Keating to prison and ended the careers of three senators, who were rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for intervening. Mr. McCain, who had been a less aggressive advocate for Mr. Keating than the others, was reprimanded only for “poor judgment” and was re-elected the next year.

McCain’s experience with the Keating affair is significant, relevant and important for two reasons. First, McCain was directly involved at the time the crime was occurring. Second, it reveals his attitude on how the banking industry should be governed.

A few weeks ago, Bill Press at The Hill explained it succinctly:

McCain co-sponsored legislation relaxing regulations on savings and loans and allowing them to gamble investor funds on certain highly risky financial ventures. Sound familiar?

For his role in aiding Keating, McCain received only a reprimand for “poor judgment” from the Senate Ethics Committee. But, ever since, the “Keating Five” has been the symbol of how much influence money can buy in Washington. And McCain, having learned nothing from the experience, then turned around and repeated the same tricks on Wall Street.

In 2000, McCain supported legislation authored by Sen. Phil Gramm that forbade federal agencies from regulating financial derivatives that greased the skids for passing along risky mortgage-backed securities to investors. Today we’re suffering the consequences.

Gramm’s legislation was the key. Without it, AIG could never have veered from the solid ground of life insurance onto the shaky ground of sub-prime mortgages. And John McCain championed that legislation.

Chalk And Cheese

Obama-Ayers is irrelevant because Obama wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing; McCain-Keating means a lot because McCain was heavily involved in wrong-doing, was reprimanded by the Senate for it, and because it is a living, breathing example of the dangers inherent in his deregulatory economic philosophy.

So Keating and Ayers are not equal issues. Apples and oranges. Chalk and cheese.

There’s old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The moral of the Keating scandal is that McCain is guilty of repeating history, a mortal political sin. Having seen firsthand the harm of de-regulation, if McCain truly was a “maverick” and a “regulator” as he now claims to be, he could have actually sounded warning bells this time around. He didn’t because he was one of its biggest supporters. As a result, this is simply a lie woven into a stump speech.

Obama’s sin is working sporadically 10 years ago with a man who, while Obama was a child, engaged in substantial wrongdoing.

One of these things is not like the other. In fact, they are not analogous and implying that they are is simply and totally wrong.