The return of Charles Keating

Barack Obama's campaign is fighting back against its opponent by bringing up a scandal from John McCain's past -- is it a smart move?

Published October 6, 2008 8:30PM (EDT)

John McCain's campaign isn't the only one on the attack today. Barack Obama's campaign is now launching an effort to bring up an unsavory part of the Republican nominee's past, specifically Charles Keating and the Keating Five scandal.

The Obama camp has launched a new Web site,, and a new documentary on the relationship between the two, which can be viewed at the bottom of this post.

Both are intended to remind voters of the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s, in which Keating -- a contributor to McCain -- was a central player. The Keating Five was a group of senators (McCain and four Democrats) accused of trying to improperly intervene with regulators on the banker's behalf. McCain was eventually cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee, but was criticized for showing "poor judgment."

The scandal is an important part of the McCain legend, supposedly the point in his political career that prompted him to become a reformer and "maverick." Interestingly, though, in reacting to Democratic attacks on Monday, his camp pushed back hard, and his former counsel said that the investigation actions was "a classic political smear job on John" and that he didn't accept the Ethics Committee's declaration about McCain's judgment.

Whether this line of attack will ultimately benefit Obama remains an open question. I tend to agree with the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and The New Republic's Jason Zengerle, both of whom think the Obama camp might have better ways to spend its time.

On the one hand, it's tempting to say that Obama should give McCain a taste of his own medicine, and not take attacks based on his associations with Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright lying down. On the other hand, Obama has been dominating McCain recently because of the economic crisis. The Keating scandal does have the bonus of being related to the economy, but still -- on yet another bad day for the market, the Obama camp hasn't been spending its time talking about an issue that's a proven winner. As Zengerle writes:

Obama has a real opportunity to take McCain's Ayers gambit and use it as yet another example of McCain being out of touch. Obama could cut one of those one- or two-minute ads that show him speaking directly to the camera and saying something like, "On a day when we appear to be teetering on the brink of a global recession and people are worried about their economic futures, John McCain wants to 'turn the page' and talk about the 40-year-old actions of a man whom I barely know and whose actions I've deemed despicable..." and then pivot to a discussion of his economic plan. Such an ad would reenforce the thing that's most distinguished Obama from McCain during the financial crisis: Obama's sober, serious side. Why not continue to play that up?

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.