As long as Obama and Hillary continue to duke it out, the media will keep focusing on the contentiousness of the Democratic race while John McCain is free to define himself to the public on his own terms. And that’s only part of the problem. The danger to Democrats is twofold.
First, as Noam Scheiber, in The New Republic, points out, we are facing a debacle like the one in 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter and they mutually self-destructed at the convention.
When Democrats contemplate the apocalypse these days, they have visions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slugging it out à la Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter at the 1980 convention. The campaign's current trajectory is, in fact, alarmingly similar to the one that produced that disastrous affair. Back then, Carter had built up a delegate lead with early wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and several Southern states. But, as the primary season dragged on, Kennedy began pocketing big states and gaining momentum. Once all the voting ended and Kennedy came up short, he eyed the New York convention as a kind of Hail Mary.I think that while Scheiber's portrayal is basically correct, he overstates his case. There are significant differences between the 1980 presidential race and the one going on today. That fractious convention was far from the only reason Jimmy Carter lost, although it sure didn’t help.
Any candidate trailing at the convention must employ divisive tactics, almost by definition. For example, much of the bitterness in 1980 arose from the floor votes Kennedy engineered to drive a wedge between Carter and his delegates. At one point, Kennedy forced a vote on whether each state's delegation should be split equally between men and women. Carter counted many feminists among his delegates, but the campaign initially opposed the measure so as to deny Kennedy a victory. "You had women who were with Jimmy Carter who were crying on the floor," recalls Joe Trippi, then a young Kennedy organizer
Unlike today’s situation, Carter was a sitting president, presiding over an abysmal economy that included stagflation; high unemployment; a gasoline shortage that saw a return to long gas lines at the pump, reminiscent of the 1973 gasoline shortage; and the hostage crisis in Iran. Then, he topped it off by giving the his famous “malaise speech.”
In addition, Carter blew a major debate. He sought to portray Ronald Reagan as a right wing nut and dangerous hawk. But what lasted in the public’s mind was that Carter revealed he consulted with his 12 year old daughter Amy for her views on nuclear weapons policy, which became fodder for late night comedians.
Then, Reagan’s famous question: “Are you better off now than four years ago?” turned Carter’s slim lead into a landslide for Reagan. That question probably had more to do with Carter’s defeat than the divisions coming out of the Democratic Convention that year. In this election cycle, it's the one question that could win for the Democrats.
So, back to the present and the bigger danger for this presidential race. It’s that while the public and the media are focused on the contest between Clinton and Obama, John McCain has been given a free hand to define himself to the voters and the media. And the media is already in love with him. Here’s what Scheiber has to say about that.
Ideally, the Democrats would be exploiting this tension like mad. They would highlight the anti-Catholic, anti-gay ravings of John Hagee, the evangelical minister whose endorsement McCain recently accepted. They would ridicule his chumminess with supply-side Neanderthals like Jack Kemp and his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts. They'd dwell on McCain's less-noticed association with crony-capitalists during his tenure as Commerce Committee chairman.Scheiber’s right about that part, of course. But it’s not just that the media is otherwise engaged and so is missing these points.
Instead, something close to the opposite is happening. McCain's courtship of the lunatic right and his ties to K Street have largely been hidden from view, while the Democrats' dirty laundry has been aired for swing voters.
Of course, a press corps that can’t mentally multi-task and keep their eye on one story line is nothing new. But it’s more than the fact that they have the attention span of a gnat. This press corps has also fallen head over heels in love with John McCain so they are not inclined to cover these things with any accuracy. Indeed, they’ll give him a pass instead.
Right on cue, this op-ed in today’s New York Times explains what is going on with the press corps and why.
It is certainly no secret that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a darling of the news media. Reporters routinely attach “maverick,” “straight talker” and “patriot” to him like Homeric epithets. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has even called the press “McCain’s base” — a comment that Mr. McCain himself has jokingly reiterated. The mainstream news media by and large don’t cover Mr. McCain; they canonize him. Hence the moniker on liberal blogs: St. McCain.According to Neal Gabler, the press sees a kindred spirit, a candidate with ironic distance from the process, who senses the absurdity of it all, just as they do. They admire what they perceive as McCain’s shared cynicism.
What is less obvious, however, is exactly why the press swoons for
Though Mr. McCain can be the most self-deprecating of candidates (yet another reason the news media love him), his vision of the process also betrays an obvious superiority — one the mainstream political news media, a group of liberal cosmologists, have long shared. If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who “gets it.” He sees what the press sees. Michael Scherer, a blogger for Time, called him the “coolest kid in school.”Paradoxically, the press corps first fell in love with McCain back in 2000 because of his perceived honesty. He was not the typical politician. He named his bus “The Straight Talk Express” and presented himself as a bi-partisan maverick, willing to buck his own party’s orthodoxy. To the reporters, he was accessible and refreshingly honest. Now it’s not his honesty, but his lack of the same that they love. It’s their little inside joke with their candidate.
Yet the reporters, so quick in general to jump on hypocrisy, seem to find his insincerity a virtue. When an old sobersides like Mitt Romney flip-flops, he is called a panderer. When Mr. McCain suddenly supports the tax cuts he once excoriated, or embraces the religious right, or emphasizes border security over a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, we are told by his press acolytes that he doesn’t really mean it, that his liberal cosmology will ultimately best his conservative rhetoric. “Discount his repositioning a bit,” Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, wrote two years ago, “and McCain looks like the same unconventional character who emerged during the Clinton years.” The article was subtitled “Psst ... He’s Not Really a Conservative.”Indeed, how reminiscent is that of Michael Kinsley’s ridiculous piece about a month ago on why liberals love McCain?
Paul Krugman predicted, in a NYT column, that the press, who seem to also love Obama, will turn on him in the election because, at the end of the day, their real love affair is with McCain. Indeed, Krugman quotes Bob Somerby’s prediction that the press will “Dukakisize Obama.”
I believe it’s true. In the end, they’ll turn like a pack of jackals on Obama just as they did on Gore and Kerry. But they’d be even harder on Hillary. As Gabler explains, here’s why.
The candidates who are dead serious about politics, even wonkish, get abused by the press for it. Mr. McCain the ironist gets heaps of affection. In this race, though, it has forced some press contortions. While John McCain 2000 was praised for being the same straight talker off the bus as he was on it, John McCain 2008 is praised precisely because he isn’t the same man. Off the bus he plays to the rubes (us) by reciting the conservative catechism; on the bus he plays to the press by giving the impression that his talk is all just a ploy to capture the Republican nomination.What a searing indictment of the lack of seriousness of our national press corps. Their frivolity indeed makes Daily Howler Bob Somerby’s epithet for them true. They are clowns!
But while they are clowning, the average American is losing because McCain doesn’t have a clue about how to fix the economy. Indeed, he’s our next Herbert Hoover. And he thinks we should stay in Iraq for a hundred years and bomb Iran to boot. I don’t think that’s irony. It’s his legitimate position.
Meanwhile more about the press corps’ bias:
This suggests that love is blind. It also suggests that seducing the press with ironic detachment, the press’s soft spot, may be the best political strategy of all — one that Mr. McCain may walk on water right into the White House.And while he’s walking on water with the mainstream media’s acquiescence, the progressive bloggers are fighting over Hillary or Obama. Nobody’s paying attention to McCain, and certainly nobody is watching the watchers in our media.
And that’s how we will lose the election that we should have won!