Let me say at the outset:
I'll be voting for John McCain on Nov. 4.
I'll be voting for the man who was right about the surge, who holds clear-eyed views about terrorism and America's enemies, who has fought for leaner government over 20 years, who maneuvered the Roberts and Alito nominations through the Senate, who was right about Vladimir Putin, and who has throughout his career shown a personal candor and humility unusual in national politics.
Like a lot of Republicans, I'll be swallowing a great deal in order to cast my vote. I'll be swallowing objections to McCain's views on issues from immigration to campaign finance reform. I'll be swallowing doubts about personality and temperament. And above all, I'll be swallowing some fairly intense suspicions that a McCain administration would veer quite sharply to the left - as McCain reverts to a career-long practice of pandering to conservatives during elections and then apologizing to liberals afterward.
I'll do all this because I'll be voting as much against Barack Obama - the most liberal Democratic presidential nominee since Walter Mondale - as for John McCain.
Bona fides established? Okay, now for the sermon.
American voters are staggering under the worst financial crisis since at least 1982. Asset values are tumbling, consumer spending is contracting, and a recession is visibly on the way. This crisis follows upon seven years in which middle-class incomes have stagnated and Republican economic management has been badly tarnished. Anybody who imagines that an election can be won under these circumstances by banging on about William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright is ... to put it mildly ... severely underestimating the electoral importance of pocketbook issues.
We conservatives are sending a powerful, inadvertent message with this negative campaign against Barack Obama's associations and former associations: that we lack a positive agenda of our own and that we don't care about the economic issues that are worrying American voters.
Republicans used negative campaigning successfully against Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, it's true. But 1988 and 2004 were both years of economic expansion, proincumbent years. 2008 is like 1992, only worse. If we couldn't beat Clinton in 1992 by pointing to his own personal draft-dodging and his own personal womanizing, how do we expect to defeat Obama in a much more anti-incumbent year by attacking the misconduct of people with whom he once kept company (but doesn't anymore)?
Here's another thing to keep in mind:
Those who press this Ayers line of attack are whipping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that is going to be very hard to calm after November. Is it really wise to send conservatives into opposition in a mood of disdain and fury for a man who may well be the next president of the United States, incidentally the first African-American president? Anger is a very bad political adviser. It can isolate us and push us to the extremes at exactly the moment when we ought to be rebuilding, rethinking, regrouping and recruiting.
I'm not suggesting that we remit our opposition to a hypothetical President Obama. Only that an outgunned party will need to stay cool. A big part of Obama's appeal is his self-command. It's a genuinely impressive quality. Let's emulate it. We'll be needing it.
David Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.