What gives, J-Mac? Time told its readers that McCain’s relations with the press cooled earlier this summer, when, dissatisfied by the coverage he was getting, his campaign curtailed access to the candidate. But this explanation doesn’t go far enough.
A few hours before Palin’s speech, National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel made an astute observation: nothing unifies Republicans, he noted, like the feeling that they’re being persecuted by the press. And sure enough, inside the Xcel Energy Center that night, the delegates sitting closest to the press section stood up and wagged their fingers at the assembled journalists when Palin referenced her alleged mistreatment.
This brings us to the advantages of McCain’s new attitude, which both preceded Palin’s selection and was intensified by it. As a self-styled maverick, McCain periodically irked the Republican base with his heterodoxy on pet issues, like Bush’s tax cuts and immigration. On the way to the ’08 nomination, he fell in line, but doubts about his reliability lingered.
But now — by pitting himself against the media — McCain has basically given the secret GOP handshake. The Straight Talk Express is dead: long live the new McCain, who stands with his conservative brethren against the press and the multitude of sins (liberalism, elitism, intellectualism, cosmopolitanism) they allegedly represent.
Undoing the myth
Right now, McCain’s gambit looks brilliant — witness the aforementioned post-convention bump. The prediction here, though, is that, come Election Day, he’s going to rue his decision.
Why? Now that the Democratic and Republican pep rallies are over, the candidates desperately need the press’s assistance to get their message out. But now that McCain has given the press the finger, most members of the media will be a lot less inclined to do anything that aids his campaign.
Some of them may actually respond by leveling direct, aggressive challenges at the McCain-Palin ticket. In this regard, keep an eye on Joe Klein, who absolutely eviscerated McCain’s new MO — and urged his peers not to be bullied — in a September 3 post on time.com’s Swampland blog.
Elsewhere, however, the pushback will probably be more subtle — manifesting itself, for example, in which stories get reported and which stories get prominent play. Case in point: as of this writing, the following articles were the first-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-most-viewed on the Web site of McClatchy’s Washington, DC, bureau: “McCain’s history of hot temper raises concerns”; “Palin used state funds for trip to speak at her former church”; “Here’s the story about Palin’s book-banning try as mayor”; “Campaign saying little about Sarah Palin’s religious faith.”
It’s also likely that McCain’s gambit will make the press less inclined to follow his campaign’s talking points on Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate. A few weeks back, pundits everywhere were regurgitating the conservative notion that Obama is a narcissist. Maybe they really thought Obama’s candidacy was self-absorbed; maybe, eager to show their fairness and balance, they simply felt obligated to knock the Democrat around a bit. Either way, McCain was the beneficiary. Next time, it’ll be a harder sell.
True, McCain and Palin can take their case directly to the electorate. And maybe, in a swing state or two, in-person politicking could make a difference. Remember, though, that when Candidate X comes to Springfield, far more people read about it in the paper or see it on TV than actually witness it in person. Remember, too, that the debates still haven’t begun. And those questions don’t ask themselves.