Ever since Sarah Palin crinkled her nose and dismissed the media and “all those reporters and commentators” during her speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, the media strategy of John McCain’s presidential campaign has been to assault it as biased, inaccurate and elitist.
It doesn’t seem to be working out so great.
Not only have the refs, by and large, declined to be gamed—the coverage in The New York Times has often been harshly critical and, by Times standards, remarkably unequivocal—but the media-hating public has reacted, more or less, with indifference. After holding a brief, post-convention lead in national polls, Mr. McCain now trails Barack Obama by about five percentage points.
As a matter of fact, at this point, some McCain sympathizers sound as if they’re no longer sure what to make of what the campaign is doing at all.
“This is not a tactic you should employ when you are trying to go after swing voters,” said a former adviser to Mr. McCain, speaking on background. “And they have gone after just about everybody. It’s not even working the refs now. It’s way beyond that. And it epitomized the anger within the campaign, and angry campaigns tend not to win.”
With one of the worst economic disasters in generations threatening the country, the broader danger is that Mr. McCain’s vaunted game-changers—not only the war on the media but the selection of Ms. Palin as a running mate, the decision to “suspend” his campaign to travel to Washington and hammer out an economic solution that never came about—make him look erratic instead of focused, and desperate instead of commanding.
“The point of this campaign is ‘Where is John McCain going to take the country?’ Anything that is not associated with driving that point is not central,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist who was an adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Anything that is a sort of a distraction from the whole dynamic of ‘why McCain’ is just losing time on the clock.”
Asked if declaring war against the press was a worthy expenditure of the campaign’s time and effort, Mr. Winston replied, “By doing that, what’s the strategic outcome that matters to the campaign?”
Tom Kean, the popular former governor of New Jersey and a McCain supporter, suggested that despite a pro-Obama bias in the media, it was time to move on.
“I think you weather that, and talk about the issues and make your points. I don’t think you can do anything about it,” he said. “You’ve got to point it out, I think, but after that, you move on. You hope that in fairness, as the campaign progresses in the next three weeks, you turn it around a little bit. And that he’ll get his share of favorable stories. My experience with the media is always that it wants to be fair. It gets off base from time to time. Its prejudices show from time to time and they show their favorability to one candidate or another, but I think they try to get themselves back on track.”
Talking about the consequences of harping on the media, or “suspending” the campaign to intervene in delicate negotiations over a bailout legislation, or playing hide-and-seek with Ms. Palin, the former McCain adviser put it this way: “The whole campaign has been a tactic. There is not a central mooring to come back to. There is not a central theme, narrative. And you don’t have as much control of tactics. You have complete control of your strategy but not your tactics.”
ON SEPT. 26, after the presidential debate at Ole Miss, Mr. McCain’s press team mingled easily enough with members of the media in the spin room.
Spokesman Tucker Bounds shook hands and bantered with reporters and seemed completely devoid of the animosity that led him to supply the following comment to The New York Times in the paper’s Sept. 28 exposé about Mr. McCain’s connection to the gambling industry: “Your paper has repeatedly attempted to insinuate impropriety on the part of Senator McCain where none exists—and it reveals that your publication is desperately willing to gamble away what little credibility it still has.”
(On Sept. 1 Mr. Bounds refused to answer CNN’s Campbell Brown’s dogged requests for examples of Ms. Palin’s foreign policy experience, which prompted the McCain campaign to cancel an appearance by the candidate on Larry King Live. “After a relentless refusal by certain on-air reporters to come to terms with John McCain’s selection of Alaska’s sitting governor as our party’s nominee for vice president, we decided John McCain’s time would be better served elsewhere,” the campaign said. CNN responded that Ms. Campbell was doing her job.)
A few feet away from Mr. Bounds, Jill Hazelbaker, the campaign’s friendly communications director, welcomed a reporter to the small circle around her.
“Hey, how are you, nice to see you,” Ms. Hazelbaker said. “So? What did you guys think? What did you guys think?” she asked.
She paused to flatter another journalist: “Haven’t I seen you on TV?”
She chatted amiably with Ben Smith, the Politico reporter, whom her campaign had characterized days earlier as “in the tank” for Obama. (Mr. Smith had had the temerity to fact-check the accusations Mr. McCain’s chief political strategist, Steve Schmidt, made on a Sept. 22 conference call that the campaign held to complain about their growing reputation as liars.)
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