Did the N.Y. Times do McCain a favor?
Since John McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign has been searching for the right surrogate to convince skeptical conservatives that he really is one of them.
There is more than a little irony in the possibility that one of the least conservative organizations in America—The New York Times—could turn out to be the matchmaker who seals that deal.
It is a reality in politics that shared enemies can unify feuding family members.
That is clearly what appears to be initially happening among conservatives, although it will be a while until good polling can determine how the voting public views the Times story about McCain.
The newspaper quoted anonymous sources as saying McCain aides had urged him and a female lobbyist to stay away from each other because of the damage it might do to his 2000 presidential campaign. But the story did not quote anyone as saying the two had an affair.
McCain said he did nothing wrong and his campaign, quick to understand the potential benefit it might reap from conservative hatred of the Times, quickly took on the newspaper with a fund-raising appeal.
“The New York Times … has shown once again that it cannot exercise good journalistic judgment when it comes to dealing with a conservative Republican,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis wrote to supporters. “We need your help to counteract the liberal establishment and fight back against The New York Times by making an immediate contribution today.”
McCain’s strategy is based on a big “if,”—that he is the innocent victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by a well-known Democratic-leaning institution.
Of course if the Times story is judged by the general public as true, then it could be a serious blow to McCain’s campaign, which has been built upon the notion that he is a straight shooter.
But if McCain is able to win the public-relations battle, then the Times may well have given the GOP candidate a campaign contribution whose value far, far exceeds the legal limits.
It is worth remembering that CBS’ report in the 2004 campaign questioning President Bush’s recollection of his National Guard service became a flash point. When it was discovered that the “60 Minutes” report was based on fake documents, the story created a backlash that helped Bush and eventually cost CBS anchor and icon Dan Rather his job.
The mainstream news media is not well regarded by many conservatives overall, and it is no exaggeration to list the Times, even before this story, as their least favorite print outlet.
Fairly or not, many conservatives view the Times as a Democratic Party house organ.
In fact, conservative distrust of McCain to a significant degree has stemmed from the belief among many that during his quarter-century in Congress, he has been cozying up to and doing the bidding of liberals/Democrats on key issues despite an overall conservative voting record.
But those maverick ways detested by conservatives are the flip side of his ability to attract independents and Democrats that helped win him the nomination and make him a formidable candidate in the November election.
Even after wrapping up the GOP nomination earlier this month, McCain has faced criticism and continued opposition from some of the party’s most conservative elements. Evangelical Christian leader James Dobson has publicly said he would not vote for McCain.
Perhaps most damaging to McCain has been the opposition of a cadre of talk-radio hosts who between them have an audience numbering in the tens of millions, most of whom are Republican/conservative.
But the Times story brought them to McCain’s defense. Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the best-known and most-listened-to of the conservative talk-radio crew, was typical.
The New York Times story, he said, was just another example of the “drive-by media” that was “trying to take him (McCain) out.” David Brody, whose blog is widely read on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Web site, underscored McCain’s potential to turn what initially is a lemon of a story into lemonade.
“If the New York Times does a ‘hit job’ on you, then you wear that as a conservative badge of honor. This story could actually help John McCain.”
If McCain is telling the truth, Brody could well be right and the Times might have accomplished with one story what it might otherwise have taken McCain months and millions to accomplish—unifying the conservative base around him.
Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute; his e-mail address is email@example.com. This article first appeared on Politico.com.