Bush vs. Gore: A Surprise Each Month, But Does McCain Go Reform?
William Safire, writing in the March 6 New York Times, says that Bob Jones III's reversal on the dating policy at his university is proof that Sen. John McCain is a "real reformer." Whatever. I often agree with Safire, the only credible columnist on that paper's op-ed roster (to be fair, I haven't given Paul Krugman much of a chance yet), but his well-known vendetta against the Bush family makes any snipes about the Texas Governor's campaign suspicious. Unwittingly, Safire makes a much more important point in his foolish piece, which clings to the notion that McCain might still win California if the turnout is big enough. Never mind that the Senator's campaign has already written off the state, according to a page-one story in the Times the very same day.
What's clear is that campaign finance reform, in the current form that McCain's pushing, is a losing issue. Voters care a lot more about education, crime, the economy and Social Security. Still, a steady diet of reading the Times proves what a disastrous effect campaign-finance reform legislation would have on this country's democracy. Because if citizens are restricted in their contributions, whether it's hard or soft money, then the unions and media will become the main source of information and propaganda in every campaign. The Times has been relentless in its positive coverage of McCain and Al Gore; even on Saturday, when the Senator's campaign was in meltdown, a lead story in the paper was headlined "McCain Is Strong In New England." Even more laughable, the headline in the Web version of the article was "Bush May Have to Survive Connecticut Sweep by McCain." Uh, so what. Yes, McCain will win Massachusetts and probably the rest of New England; that makes him a regional candidate.
What's worse is that reporter Paul Zielbauer outright distorts the political climate in other states. He writes that the race in Ohio is "tight," even though polling from that very day showed Bush ahead by at least 20 points. I won't dawdle about with the Times; perhaps next year an impartial journalist will write a book about this campaign and the role the elite press played in it. But one more example: in the Sunday editions of the Times and Washington Post, the two lead headlines were, respectively, "McCain and Bush Facing a Crucial Test on Tuesday" and "Super Tuesday May End Races." The Post is no fan of Bush, but at least they conceal their stacked deck with a lot more finesse than the country-club morons on W. 43rd St.
A few more thoughts.
1. McCain Loses Steam. I'm finishing this column a day before the results of Tuesday's string of primaries are known (I refuse to use the term "Super Tuesday," as if everything in life can be analogized to a sporting event), but it's fairly clear that Sen. McCain has run out of gas. His hyperbolic, and strategically suicidal, attack on the religious right a week ago effectively ended his presidential campaign. The spin was that McCain had given up on Virginia (he hadn't) and was hoping that a nationally televised lynching would fatally chain Gov. Bush to the right-wing segment of the Republican Party. When McCain lost not only in Virginia, but Washington and North Dakota as well, it was proven that his explosive and sanctimonious speech had backfired.
The question is: what was McCain's motive? The now-infamous Bob Jones III was a minnow in American politics and culture; before McCain decided to lash Bush at the hip with the religious zealot, almost nobody in the country had heard of him. His harsh attack on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two over-the-hill political forces, was equally disproportional. I don't agree with much of what Robertson and Falwell preach, but they're not "evil" men, as McCain had to sheepishly acknowledge days later. And to put them in the same category as Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, true racists, was over the top, and not only alienated the Republican base but the Independent voters he'd courted so effectively in the past six weeks.
Al Gore and Hillary Clinton will ultimately have to answer for their kissing of Sharpton's ring, even though they've mostly been given a free ride so far. Why hasn't the media called for Gore and Bill Bradley to apologize for their shameless pandering to Sharpton? Why hasn't The New York Times editorialized on that unseemly association? I guess the fact that Sharpton is a "person of color" has nothing to do with it.
However, Derrick Z. Jackson was dead-on when he wrote in the Feb. 25 Boston Globe: "Sharpton is the black folks' Nixon for stoking the 1988 lie that Tawana Brawley was kidnapped and raped by white men. He is the black folks' [Pat] Buchanan for his isolationist views, complaining far more about the black boy killed by a Jewish driver in 1991 than the Jewish man who was killed soon after by a black man in apparent street mob retaliation."
And as Jacob Weisberg pointed out on Feb. 29 in Slate, McCain was selective in his choice of religious right hobgoblins. For example, he exempted James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and arguably a more powerful force in Christian politics than Robertson or Falwell. Weisberg correctly theorizes that Dobson was left out in deference to Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate who inexplicably endorsed McCain even after the Senator was wobbly on the abortion issue. Weisberg mentions that Dobson is an advocate of "curing" homosexuals and then writes: "A couple of years ago, Dobson threatened to lead a right-wing walkout from the Republican Party because Tom DeLay and Dick Armey are too moderate for his taste... In other words, McCain's problem isn't with all 'agents of intolerance' trying to exert influence within the Republican Party. It's just with the agents of intolerance who don't happen to be helpful to John McCain."
I've been harsh on Weisberg in the past?his soft stance toward Bill Clinton has always been nauseating. And this year, when he cooed about McCain's courage and wrote about how much damn fun it was to ride on the rolling dorm party called the "Straight Talk Express," it was beyond the pale. But I give him credit for calling McCain on his contradictions as the Senator's campaign has traveled into the fourth dimension. Other McCain toadies are still singing his praises, even after it's clear that this man is apt to become unhinged at any moment. That's fine in the Senate, where he can throw a tantrum with Trent Lott or Mitch McConnell, but being an angry old man is an unappealing trait for a president.
Also last week, Bush was forced to issue a quasi-apology for his appearance at Bob Jones University. At first, McCain exploited that controversy adroitly, which was ironic since the Senator himself had approached the university about making a speech there, and I doubt it was to tell Jones to jump into the 17th century, as he now claims. Rep. Mark Sanford, one of McCain's leading supporters in South Carolina, was dismayed when it was revealed the McCain campaign had sought an audience at the school. He told the Washington Times last week: "I have heartburn with a capital H. This is not the campaign I signed up for. I signed up to be a part of reforming government, Social Security, federal spending, campaign finance. I didn't sign up to be a part of this bizarre wordplay we've had over the last few days."
Not much went right for McCain last week. He was in, out and back in for the Los Angeles debate last Thursday night, although being beamed in from St. Louis certainly worked to his disadvantage. While Bush was able to josh with Alan Keyes right on the set, McCain was a wooden soldier, unable to exhibit any charm or camaraderie with the other candidates. Not that he was inclined to. The debate was a dull affair?with Keyes again the rhetorical star and also more pointed in his criticism of McCain than Bush?but the Texas Governor was declared the winner simply because of the prevailing political currents.
Reporters and pundits are now deserting the "Straight Talk Express" bus they've partied on for so long for two reasons. One, McCain has broken his pledge to take the "high road and never lie." It's a more bitter bus when you're obliged to answer tough questions. Two, now that the campaign is essentially winding down, news organizations simply don't want to spend the money required to cover a once-huge story. So McCain has largely lost his base, the media (with the stubborn exception of The New York Times).
It's also clear that McCain knows it's over. On the talk shows over the weekend, the Senator kept bleating the untrue spin that he'd run an "honorable" campaign, no matter what the ultimate results. And in a meeting with the Daily News, which endorsed him on Sunday, McCain was fatalistic, according to reporter Richard Sisk. He wrote: "McCain said his candidacy has undergone a transformation. The main mission was to win the nomination, but he also is now determined to rid the GOP of big money and the Christian right influence."
2. Bush Is Lucky It's Only March. So last week we witnessed the meltdown of McCain. I give the guy credit, by using the media as a tool he took a bare-bones operation almost to the nomination. I wrote months ago that a key element in a winning presidential campaign is luck, and George Bush is damn lucky there are so many primaries on March 7. If the GOP battleground were only New York, Bush would've been in a heap of trouble. That's how amateurish the campaign has been here?not surprising, since the candidate allowed himself to be escorted around the state by Gov. George Pataki.
First there was the news that Sam Wyly, one of Bush's main contributors, had spent $2.5 million in "soft money" ads in New York, California and Ohio that blasted McCain's record on the environment, while boasting about Bush's pristine state of Texas. Please. There are two problems with this: One, although the Bush campaign denies any knowledge of the ad campaign, even if it's true no one will believe them, and it plays into McCain's centerpiece issue of campaign finance reform. Two, neither Republican is likely to be toasted by the Sierra Club; it's a stupid issue to waste all that money on and muddies Bush's real accomplishments in Texas.
Then there was the radio ad that accused McCain of being hostile to breast cancer research. When pressed by reporters, Bush couldn't back up the claim. Nor could he point to any legislation he's passed in Texas on the issue. Even worse, who's the idiot in the Bush campaign who couldn't discover that McCain's sister, Susan McCain Morgan, has survived breast cancer? Bush wasn't much better at the State University of New York at Stony Brook when, accompanied by Liddy Dole for female cover, he responded to the revelation about McCain's sibling by saying, "All the more reason to remind him what he said about the research that goes on here." It was a sickening moment for the campaign and Bush, who puts such a value on family loyalty, ought to be ashamed.
His slipshod effort in New York might cost him a victory here; if that's the case, he deserved to lose.
In fact, a friend of mine who also supports Bush was so disgusted by the ad he said (rather apocalyptically, I think) that the Texan has already blown the general election. "Well, I just finished reading the Times and the Post and Bush's remark about McCain's sister will finish him off. If it's on tape and I were Gore, I'd just run it all spring as an ad, with the tagline 'This is the real George Bush.'"
Of course, Gore can't do that. He's got his own, much worse cancer baggage. After his tearjerker speech at the '96 convention, speaking about his sister who died of lung cancer in 1983, the GOP gleefully excavated footage of Gore's short presidential campaign in 1988 when he bragged in Southern states about how he worked in the tobacco fields as a youth on the family farm.
But the fact remains that Bush's team didn't know the New York terrain. What was the candidate doing faking his way through a seminar on breast cancer research when he could've held a rally at Washington Square Park and spoken about education? Why did he let the unimaginative Pataki lead him by the nose when Rudy Giuliani, who was smart not to criticize McCain, would've been a much better chaperone? After McCain's admission of his own dirty tactics in Michigan, Bush was polling fine in New York and he could've toured the state on a positive note with the Senate hopeful, bashing (in this instance) Bill and Hillary Clinton instead of McCain. The brain trust in Austin has performed admirably on many fronts, but if the campaign waged here is any indication, it's a good thing there's still time before the general election. I'd say a major, Al Gore-like shakeup is in order. David Beckwith was thrown overboard last year; some others should follow him into the drink.
What Bush has to do in the general election is frame the agenda. He can't always play defense: that's why McCain was so effective against him. He has to coherently explain what "compassionate conservatism" is and what it means to the average American. Gore and the Democrats will demagogue on a number of issues. They will race-bait in the South. Bush can head this off?and the sooner the better?by recasting the arguments. Make abortion about partial-birth abortion. Make guns an issue of elitism and class warfare. Make tobacco an issue of elitism and class warfare. Put a more accurate face on the religious right. Slam the Hollywood and Hamptons liberals who are so vital to the Democratic fundraising efforts.
Once McCain consultant Mike Murphy has licked his wounds, Bush should hire him immediately. Murphy's a political whore; he'll go where the money is. The addition of a far more creative advertising team is essential, as well as new speechwriters. Peggy Noonan and Mark Helprin would be outstanding.
He also ought to challenge Gore to as many debates as possible. That goes against Beltway thinking since the Vice President has the reputation of being a black belt in that arena, but such lofty expectations work to Bush's advantage. Like Ronald Reagan, if he can crack a few jokes, make some solid policy points, he'll be perceived as a winner?the optimistic candidate. Also, if there are a number of debates, their significance will be devalued.
Not that McCain behaved much better in New York. He appeared on the dreadful Don Imus talk show Friday morning, a pit stop for journalists and politicians, even though the despicable radio personality is a well-known racist. He rightfully complained about the breast cancer ads, saying, "It really is an unfortunate part of American political campaigning when the Bush people would pay for such an outrageous statement. People will figure it out. And if they don't figure it out, we'll have run an honorable campaign." But he hasn't run an "honorable" campaign, as people have begun to figure out. He can't imply that Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot in his own ads and then say he's been honest.
And when McCain appeared on Wall Street and referred to Pataki and Republican state chairman William Powers as "Comrades," he once again minimized the seriousness of his effort. I'm not sure that McCain will ever realize that Americans want Luke Skywalker in movie theaters and not the White House.
But it was Bush who took the low road in New York. Again, he's lucky that so many other states were in play; the pro-McCain media was spread thin and couldn't come up with a unified attack as they ate donuts on the "Straight Talk Express." Also, by this time, both campaigns have indulged in so many ugly exchanges that almost all radio and television advertising is just noise, commercials to tune out.
3. Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss? Meanwhile, Al Gore has cruised to the Democratic nomination, in large part because the McCain phenomenon monopolized the time of reporters who'd have been favorable to Bill Bradley. Still, Bradley peaked too early: back when Gore was in trouble, changing his wardrobe and staff with every new poll, the former Senator raised an enormous sum of money and appealed to a media that likes to believe it's above the horse race. Once the actual campaigning began, however, Gore slapped Bradley around in debates, even when his checkered legislative career was questioned. Bradley didn't go on the offensive until it was too late. At an Iowa debate, Gore, typically speaking to the audience as if they were preschoolers, said, "I don't think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill Bradley about how to stand up and fight for African-Americans and Latinos in this country." Bradley let that one slip by, instead of ripping into the Clinton-Gore administration scandals, and telling voters that's why he decided to run for president.
By last week, it was painful to even watch Bradley go through the motions. I saw a tv clip of him on a ferry greeting voters at rush hour and he resembled a bag man trawling for quarters, with an oversize overcoat, sloppy appearance and bags under his eyes. Commuters looked at the guy as if he smelled from a three-day bender.
No Republican should underestimate Gore; the guy has balls the size of an elephant. In the very same week that Maria Hsia, a Democratic fundraiser, was convicted on five felony counts for collecting more than $100,000 in illegal donations for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign of '96, Gore criticized Gov. Bush for using "soft money" in his campaign. Incredibly, Gore told reporters in Rhode Island on Sunday: "If Governor Bush defeats John McCain in some of these contests on Tuesday, this will raise serious questions about whether he did so fair and square... I believe it's wrong to flood soft money in these contests." Bush swiftly countered: "Vice President Gore must have forgotten what administration he's been a part of. This is an administration that has violated every finance law, it seems, on the books."
Never mind that the GOP will flood the airwaves with images of Gore at that Hacienda Heights Buddhist temple event in which that 100 grand was gathered. As John Huang testified at the trial, Hsia gave him an envelope containing checks totaling $100,000 and then went to the airport. Gore, showing the compassion of his political mentor, Bill Clinton, had little to say about the verdict last week, one that will likely result in at least a light jail sentence for Hsia. He told reporters: "The jury has rendered its verdict. It's a hard day for her. She has been a friend and a political supporter. But since this matter is still in the courts, I am not going to comment on it further."
Translated: "Tipper, I've got another name to delete from our Christmas card list."
Ditto for Charlie Trie, the former Little Rock restaurateur who brought Macau gangsters to the White House for coffee klatches in return for bundles of cash. Trie, now serving a four-month home detention sentence, testified before a congressional committee last week, admitting that "It was...well known that it cost $50,000 to attend a coffee." Yet he denies that President Clinton had any knowledge of the illegal activity.
Democrats are giddy about exploiting Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University this fall and have no doubt already written the text for those attack ads. Fair enough: that's politics. But I'd rather have the image of Gore with those Buddhist nuns, with his famous words, "No controlling legal authority," playing over and over in the background, as a competing commercial.
4. A Sloppy Three Minutes on the Keyboard. The National Review's Kate O'Beirne is one of my favorite columnists?she's the class of Capital Gang, joining Bob Novak in the battle of words against Al Hunt and the clueless Margaret Carlson?but she blew it with a March 4 NR website piece headlined "Ridge For Veep?" It's O'Beirne's contention that George Bush's tapping Tom Ridge, the popular Pennsylvania governor, as his runningmate would be a political disaster because he's pro-choice on abortion. That's precisely the reason Bush should pick Ridge, in addition to Ridge's status as a Vietnam vet who's chief executive of a vital Rust Belt state. O'Beirne writes: "John McCain failed to cause a problem for W. among Catholic voters who saw through the senator's opportunistic attack ads. But if Bush advisers foolishly conclude that it's now 'safe for Ridge,' they'll be setting off the holy war McCain's calls failed to ignite."
That's simply lazy logic. Bush needs to shed the image of a candidate hijacked by the far right-wing of the Republican Party. That's not an accurate description, but McCain and Gore, with a compliant press corps, have had some success in making it stick. It's essential that the Governor move to some centrist positions to capture Independents and disgusted Democrats who simply can't bear the thought of Gore in the White House. Choosing a man like Ridge is a giant step toward that goal. Besides, there won't be the "holy war" that O'Beirne, in her best Pat Buchanan impersonation, predicts: what are pro-life Catholics going to do? Sit out the election and let Gore choose the next Supreme Court nominees? Of course not; slipping Ridge into the veep slot will be a breeze and it'll further melt the gender gap that killed President Bush and the hapless Bob Dole in '92 and '96.
Already there are rumblings that Bush might be forced to pick the pro-life McCain as his veep, even though Captain America claims he has no interest in the office. If that happens, it would be the day I'd mark on my calendar that Bush lost the general election to Gore.
5. Mad Cow Disease in Boston! I don't have time to list all the journalistic garbage that was written about Sen. McCain's tantrum about Robertson and Falwell last week?one that will be forgotten soon, and not mentioned in the future as a modern-day Gettysburg Address, as some pundits would have it?but David Nyhan's take in the March 1 Boston Globe is too priceless to pass up.
Incredibly, even after Bush had swept three states on Feb. 29, Nyhan described the Governor's campaign as "faltering." But this is how he described what amounts to McCain's valedictory for the 2000 campaign: "The old fighter pilot put the stick over, throttled to the redline, and screamed in low over the conservative heartland, firing off rockets, bullets, bombs, the works. He was never the kind of naval aviator to return to his carrier with unused ordnance. And by the time McCain finished strafing the command posts of the religious right Monday, both sides knew this was a battle to the finish. Either the Arizona senator crowbars the faithful and their votes away from evangelical influence-peddlers?somewhere between one-sixth and one-third of Republican primary turnouts, depending on the state?or he flames out."
Nyhan concluded that McCain's more pure faith may drive "the televangelical money-changers from the temple of politics." I wonder how that questionable choice of words went over at the corporate offices of The New York Times, the company that owns the Globe.
6. What's a Sculptor to Do? Last week's New York Observer was an all-McCain issue, published unfortunately the day after the Arizona Senator lost three Republican contests and appeared on the brink of extinction. But it's an indication of the chaos at proprietor Arthur Carter's newspaper that its editorial, a salute to Al Gore, McCain and Bill Bradley, is so confusing. Surely this isn't the same author who wrote the endorsement of Bob Dole four years ago.
About Gov. Bush, the Observer writes: "Mr. Bush, however, has been unable to shake the impression that he is little more than the undistinguished son of a middling, if pleasant, family, a man who is not quite sure why he wants to be President. His claim to importance is that he has been elected twice as governor of the second most populous state in the Union. That is undeniable. But why should the nation at large feel obliged to validate the mistakes made by a few million Texans?"
Say what? I know the Observer is highly protective of its 10021 readers, and wouldn't want to subject them to a man who comes from a "middling" family?never mind that it includes a former senator, president and two current governors?but what's with the slur on Texas?
Joe Conason expresses some admiration for McCain, but not much. At least he's honest: in praising McCain for blasting Robertson and Falwell, Conason goes over the top in saying that the Senator would "begin to refurbish a party that has wandered far from the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt." Yet, unlike Anne Roiphe, the out-of-her-mind columnist on the same page, Conason admits, "There is a faddish aspect to his present popularity that will eventually fade." And Conason is clear that he wouldn't support a McCain candidacy. He's one of the few left-wing journalists (The Nation's Katha Pollitt is also one) who sees through the "Straight Talk Express" nonsense and recognizes that McCain is just as guilty as the next politician for cozying up to special interest groups with fat bank accounts.
This is one reason why Conason, as wrongheaded as can be in his puzzling defense of Clinton during the Impeachment Days, is preferable to a namedropping, elitist pundit like Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. In his March 13 "Between the Lines" column, Alter attached enormous significance to McCain's slam-dunk denunciation of Tinky-Winky Falwell and Robertson, claiming that the Arizonan has created a new wing of the Republican Party. "But in the longer term," Alter writes, "the speech was a milestone. Rockefeller Republicans are dead... Their descendants, in the Northeast and pockets of rationality elsewhere, may be known as McCain Republicans from now on. They are fiscal conservatives who believe that the GOP can't win without new blood, and the new blood is moderate."
This is why American citizens outside the New York/DC political and cultural axis loathe journalists. One, just where are these "pockets of rationality" outside your coveted Northeast, Jon? San Francisco and Seattle, I guess, and probably a county or two in Michigan. What arrogance. Two, McCain (or, as Alter calls him, "the war hero"), at least in this campaign, hasn't been fiscally conservative at all: his tax cut proposal is Clintonian, the crusade against tobacco would produce regressive taxation and the campaign finance reform he champions isn't democratic. And the notion that moderate independents will become "McCain Republicans" is absurd: McCain's pro-life, pro-NRA, pro-capital punishment and an internationalist hawk. Those aren't moderate positions, Jon, no matter how badly you want to keep on attending those McCain down-home barbecues at the Senator's house.
Roiphe, on the other hand, is simply late to the McCain party. She's just in love with this guy who fought in a war she passionately despised. The poor woman is "rooting" for McCain even though he's a pro-life Republican. Still, while Bush is "fakely compassionate" and Al Gore is "Naomi Wolf in drag," McCain is the second coming of?here we go again?Abe Lincoln. She writes: "McCain, on the other hand, might lose his temper. Good?maybe what this country needs is a man who really yells when he is mad."
Anne, you poor soul, just who the hell do you think has occupied, and tarnished, the Oval Office for the past seven years?