The first time he ran for president, John McCain basked in the adoration of the reporters covering his campaign, the opinion-shaping pundit class and editorial boards across the country. It won him hordes of independent and Democratic fans, a handful of early primaries and practical banishment from the Republican Party. In other words, the media’s affection made him a beloved and admired loser – but a loser nonetheless.
This time around, mostly because of his hawkish foreign policy and his opportunistic flip-flops (like his decision to kiss “agent of intolerance” Jerry Falwell’s ring back in 2006), McCain has been treated far less reverently by the press – except in one critical way: The portrayal of McCain as unusually honest and principled at his core has persisted. Until now.
For the first time, McCain’s media cheerleaders, many of whom split with him on policy grounds some time ago, are now directly challenging the veneer of patriotic integrity that they’ve long attached to McCain’s public actions. The reason: The thoroughly, blatantly and unapologetically dishonest campaign that McCain is now mounting against Barack Obama.
For instance, one of McCain’s newest ads – which claims that Obama wants kindergarteners to be exposed to “comprehensive sex education” – prompted Time’s Joe Klein, once a devout McCainiac, to call it “one of the sleaziest ads I’ve ever seen in presidential politics” and to mock McCain’s on-again/off-again integrity by writing: “I just can’t wait for the moment when John McCain — contrite and suddenly honorable again in victory or defeat — talks about how things got a little out of control in the passion of the moment. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.”
There are other signs of revolt within the media against long-held assumptions about McCain’s character – all triggered by a series of straight-faced assertions by the candidate that are not even close to true. Day after day, McCain touts his and his running mate’s opposition to “pork-barrel earmarks” and ridicules Obama for requesting them as a senator – even though Sarah Palin was addicted to them as an Alaskan politician. He heaps praise on Palin for courageously opposing and killing the “bridge to nowhere” – even though she supported it and, after Congress shut it down, kept the money that had been appropriated for it. And on and on. It is finally dawning on the press that McCain is now making every ruthless political calculation that he bravely refused to make eight years ago.
But that doesn’t mean it will matter.
There’s no reason to think that McCain will trash his campaign strategy between now and Election Day, not when it’s worked so well to date. The dishonesty – and the rationalizations for it – will continue until and unless there’s some kind of backlash against them. Only the political free market, and not the outraged voices of pundits and editorial boards, can force McCain to clean up his act. Of course, a chorus of disgust from the media could in theory create such a backlash. And just as it’s certain that McCain will keep up his dishonest campaign, it’s equally certain that the volume of the media’s protest will only increase.
Ironically, if McCain can afford to ignore the storm of indignation, it’s the media fault. Nearly a decade’s worth of fawning treatment of McCain’s character – including constant reminders about his Vietnam heroism and ceaseless references to his reputation as a maverick – simply can’t be canceled out overnight. Those who live and breathe politics – a tiny, unrepresentative portion of the population that includes few swing voters – have already taken note of the cynical campaign McCain is running (and if they haven’t, they soon will). They probably resisted reaching this conclusion at first, but the weight of the evidence, and the recent spate of criticism, has finally convinced them that McCain isn’t the man they thought he was.
But the casual voters who will decide this election won’t be so easily convinced, mainly because they pay passing and sporadic attention to politics. Sure, between now and the election they will probably read or hear some blunt criticism of McCain’s character, but that doesn’t mean they’ll embrace it immediately. To them, McCain as a dishonorable man is a new concept, one that runs counter to an image they long ago internalized. Agree with him or not, they’ve always assumed that McCain in highly principled. For these voters, the process of rethinking McCain’s character will be much longer than for political junkies – and the election is less than two months away.
More significantly, the McCain campaign months ago launched a concerted and effective campaign against the news media itself. Early in the summer, they took aim at the imbalance between the coverage of Obama and McCain, alleging that the “liberal media” was trying to grease the skids for the Democratic nominee and suggesting that reporters, just like those adoring young kids who turn Obama’s speeches into virtual rock concerts, had been seduced by Obama’s charisma and taken leave of their senses. The strategy was a clear success, mostly because it was rooted in truth: Obama was receiving vastly more press coverage than McCain. There was an obvious, non-conspiratorial explanation for this (and the imbalance didn’t even help Obama, since it turned the election into a referendum on him), but to voters the McCain charge rang true, a sentiment that polling has reflected.
The McCain team ratcheted up its assault after Palin was added to the ticket, hysterically railing against the press’ “sexist” effort to derail the VP nominee. In fact, reputable media outlets were asking simple questions (like: why is Palin currently under investigation in Alaska), but McCain’s team played up the lamentable effort of a liberal blogger to raise unfounded personal questions about Palin and portrayed all queries from the media as similarly unconscionable violations of decency. Again, the public bit – by wide margins, polls show that voters believe the press has been harder on Palin than her opponents.
And now this same media is going to call McCain out on his dishonorable tactics? Go ahead, the McCain brain trust is surely thinking, make our day.
Twenty years ago, another war hero, George H. W. Bush, ran what was then considered the most hollow, dishonest and disgusting campaign in the history of presidential politics, one that savaged the hapless Michael Dukakis with distorted and invented attacks. For two months, one media voice after another lashed out against Bush and his betrayal of decency and propriety.
He won in a landslide.