Openly frustrated by what they see as an ongoing double standard in the press’s treatment of his campaign, John McCain and his aides have been aggressively denouncing unfavorable stories as “smear jobs” and “scurrilous attacks,” while the candidate himself has launched a series of stinging attacks on Barack Obama.
It’s a dangerous posture for a candidate whose political success
is intimately tied with his image as an irrepressible happy warrior—equal parts Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey with a dash of his old Arizona buddy Mo Udall’s sharp sense of humor—and whose appeal to independents owes nearly as much to character and personal narrative as to issues and ideology.
For McCain and his small coterie of fiercely loyal advisers, it’s a fine line to walk. Having clinched the party’s nomination in early March, his campaign has spent the last several months finding ways to insert itself into a press narrative that’s been dominated by the just-ended Democratic fight. To that end, they picked up and extend the media-guilting camapaign began by Hillary Clinton and Saturday Night Live, and sharpening their critique of Obama.
But in doing so, they’ve already raised the question of whether McCain can maintain his upbeat warrior image while running an uphill race covered by a press the campaign sees as biased and against an opponent for whom the candidate can barely conceal his contempt.
In a Memorial Day interview with the Associated Press, McCain noted that Obama had not been to Iraq since 2006, and proposed the two go there together. It wasn’t a bad political move, but McCain couldn’t resist twisting the knife.
“I would also seize that opportunity to educate Senator Obama along the way.” Obama, of course, is some 25 years younger than McCain.
In suburban New Orleans last Tuesday, the same night that Obama finally seized the Democratic nomination, McCain offered a litany of policy differences and made the case that his general election rival had no record to back up his pledge to change Washington. But again, he couldn’t resist a slap, if one delivered with a smile.
“I have a few years on my opponent,” McCain noted, “so I am surprised that a young man has bought in to so many failed ideas.”
Plainly, McCain wants to cast Obama as a naïf who lacks the experience needed to lead the country.
In highlighting one of Obama’s chief vulnerabilities, though, McCain highlights two of his own. While voters may hesitate before turning the White House keys over to a candidate just a few years removed from debating highway speed limits in the Illinois state Senate, experience is a double-edged sword at a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction—just ask Hillary Clinton. What’s more, it’s always dangerous for McCain, who would be the older person ever elected president, to remind voters of his age.
What may be even more perilous for McCain, though, is Obama’s ability to get under his rival’s skin.
After the Illinois senator criticized McCain on the Senate floor for not supporting a Democratic-sponsored veterans’ bill with his usual, if unremarkable, effort to link McCain and Bush, the Arizonan responded with an eight-paragraph howitzer blast of a statement.
Suggesting that he had taken personal offense to Obama’s criticism, McCain got to the heart of the matter: “And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”
Other such outbursts of resentment emerged in the GOP primary, often directed at Mitt Romney, another candidate for whom McCain couldn’t mask his dislike. After Romney, who’d been accused of altering his positions to appeal to Republian primary voters, described himself as a change candidate, McCain, sporting a smile that could cut glass, shot back that “We disagree on many things. But you are the candidate of change.” Thanks to his own personal tenacity and a weak GOP field, McCain’s penchant for the putdown never really backfired during the primary.
Now, with more attention and less margin for error, McCain may need to watch his quick tongue.
Asked about his candidate’s tone, McCain adviser and speechwriter Mark Salter said that the campaign would strive to remain civil.
“In terms of contrasting with Obama, we have to be respectful and honest,” said Salter.
Noting that Obama would challenge McCain’s reputation for independence, Salter said they would defend themselves by “honestly illustrating it with examples from his record and extend it by discussing the widespread reforms he's running for president to achieve.”
And in this, he reiterated, it’s “also fair to contrast [McCain’s record] with Obama’s record respectfully and honestly.”
Charlie Black, another top McCain adviser, agreed that the key was to stay on substance.
“You keep it on issues, you never let it be personal,” Black said. “And I think he goes out of his way to try to say it’s not personal.”
“He gets questions every day where somebody’s tempting him to criticize Obama personally and he doesn’t,” Black noted.
Asked about the critique of Obama for not serving in the military, Black noted that the Democrat started that fight. “So you don’t lecture John McCain about veterans and what they need and how to treat them.”
It’s not just been the candidate himself who has turned feistier, but his campaign as well—especially toward the press.
Since winning the GOP nomination, McCain has been on the receiving end of a number of tough investigatory articles. With no horse race to cover, the press has devoted much of its coverage of the Republican nominee to scrutinizing McCain’s 25 years in Congress.
At the same time, there has not been similar such treatment of Obama—because reporters have been largely focused on the daily back-and-forth of the epic Democratic primary, and also because Obama’s shorter stay on the national stage has left him with less of a record to defend.
Whatever the reasons, McCain aides are exasperated at the difference in coverage.
In responding to what they perceive as unfair pieces, they’ve unabashedly criticized the same press that McCain once jokingly called his “base.”
After The New York Times ran a story in February that was widely criticized for suggesting—but offering no proof—that McCain had a sexual relationship with a telecom lobbyist, Black promised that the campaign would “go to war” with the paper of record.
And when the Washington Post printed a lengthy piece in April revisiting McCain’s well-known and well-documented outbursts of temper, Salter described it as “99% fiction.”
“In sum, this is one of the more shoddy examples of journalism I've ever encountered,” he wrote in an email that was published by National Review. “But for the infamous [Times] story, I'd say it was the worst smear job on McCain I'd ever seen.”
Asked about their aggressive pushback, Salter said it amounted to preventative medicine.
“When a story is way off or if the reporting kind of breaks rules and if [left] unchallenged it’s likely to drive other stories, then we need to address it publicly,” Salter said, noting they had done so only a few times.
“We can’t sit back when the press clearly, clearly is giving Obama very favorable coverage and very little tough scrutiny and not sort of call fouls when they happen,” added Black.
But, he emphasized, that they were “not eneralizing.”
“If there are a thousand media outlets and two of them are treating you unfairly, you’ve got to call a foul on those two,” Black said.
Asked if they were inviting questions about McCain’s temperament with both the candidate’s own language and the campaign’s aggressive press pushback, Black drew a line.
“There is a big difference in having a temper and being tough,” he argued. “A big difference.”
Yet some McCain sympathizers are concerned about how their candidate is presenting himself.
“It lacked graciousness, lacked civility and it was small,” one friend of McCain said in describing the candidate’s attacks on Obama on the night the Democrat made history by becoming the first African-American to run as a major party’s nominee.
McCain and his campaign are unhappy, this source suggested, at where they find themselves heading into the general election.
“They’re mad at the situation and at a candidate who they correctly feel hasn’t earned his place in history, much less the right to run for president.”
For now, Obama’s campaign says they’ll refrain from trying to turn McCain’s attacks around on him.
“There are so many important issue differences in this race,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “So I don’t know if the politics of personality are going to rise to importance to voters.”
Still, Obama hasn’t completely avoided the temptation to frame McCain as temperamental.
Responding to McCain’s lengthy and searing rebuttal on the veterans’ bill last month, Obama said: “These endless diatribes and schoolyard taunts from the McCain campaign do nothing to advance the debate about what matters to the American people.”