If you’re a liberal, you quadrennially reconcile yourself to the fact that the GOP is going to win the White House. Again. Republicans are just better than Democrats at scoring points with snark — think John Kerry windsurfing, or Mike Dukakis in that goddamn tank. They’re also adept at whipping up patriotic fear and fervor, whether it’s using 9/11 as a campaign prop or casting Barack Obama’s candidacy as an exercise in self-indulgence. And at crucial moments — like the 2000 Florida recount — the Republicans seem to simply will themselves to victory.
This time, though, there’s actually reason for optimism. Never mind the fact that this past week’s Republican National Convention demonstrated the GOP’s mastery of the darker political arts, or that Gallup shows John McCain with a post-convention lead over Obama, 49 percent to 44 percent. The RNC also featured McCain’s formal, foolhardy declaration of war on the press — the same press, by the way, that made him a political superstar. Now the press seems inclined to fire back. And if this dynamic continues over the next two months — and the election is as close as everyone expects it to be — it could be the factor that makes Obama president.
An opportunity lost
Absent McCain’s decision to demonize the press, the RNC would have been a home run. Take the cynically brilliant way that the Republicans spun Hurricane Gustav. By suspending the big speeches of September 1, the convention’s first day, the GOP transformed Gustav from a dangerous reminder of past Republican failures (Hurricane Katrina, anyone?) into an inspiring example of selfless leadership that perfectly fit McCain’s campaign slogan, “Country First.” (Granted, ignoring Gustav was never really an option; the showiness surrounding the sacrifice of that first evening felt pretty political; and there actually was plenty of partisanship on display that evening — e.g., Laura Bush noting that all the governors saving the Gulf Coast from Gustav just happened to be Republicans. Still, it was a lucky break.)
And Gustav didn’t just reinforce McCain’s master narrative. It also made it easier for him and the rest of the GOP to distance themselves from President Bush. Thanks to the weather gods, the president and his debilitating unfavorable ratings never made it to Minnesota. Bush restricted himself to a video address on September 2, thereby de-emphasizing his central role in the party and avoiding any awkward reprise of 2000’s infamous Bush-McCain hug. And all this, in turn, made it easier for McCain — who, according to Congressional Quarterly, voted with the president 95 percent of the time this past year — to cast himself as an Obama-esque agent of change when he accepted the nomination two days later. (The party faithful got the message, too; when I chatted with one California delegate in the Fox News tent, she answered every reference I made to the president with this riposte: he’s not running. That’s a tough point to debate.)
RIP, Straight Talk Express
So why — with everything going so swimmingly — did McCain decide to pick a fight with the press?