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THE TEXAS TWO-STEP! Matt Dowd fled a sinking ship, much like his partner before him: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 4, 2007

THE WAY THEY WERE: John McCain has looked very foolish in the wake of Sunday’s trip to the market. He rarely looked foolish during Campaign 2000—in large part, because the national “press corps” was determined to make him look smart. Last May, we described the embarrassing incident in December 1999, when McCain unveiled—and then retracted—his hopelessly bungled health care plan (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/06). But if you survey all the profiles of McCain from Campaign 2000, you begin to see a pattern; you see that he made comic misstatements about a long string of domestic policy matters. And, of course, he flip-flopped endlessly regarding abortion rights.

But no, McCain’s misadventures with major issues weren’t restricted to occasional flip-flops. On topic after topic, he seemed hard-pressed to explain his own stands—as journalists noted deep inside profiles which tended to stress how much fun it was to ride around with him on his bus. For example, Jonathan Chait wrote a striking profile for the New Republic in January 2000; midway through the skeptical piece, Chait dealt with McCain’s puzzling budget proposals. McCain had been telling audiences far and wide that his budget plan would help “the have-nots.” But McCain’s proposal—he wanted to expand the lowest tax bracket upward—would only have affected the top one-fourth of all taxpayers, as Chait spelled out in his piece. How did McCain respond to this news, which anyone with a passing knowledge of the federal tax code should have understood? According to Chait, McCain was “at first undaunted” when the contradiction was noted; the affected people “are in that [top 25 percent] bracket, but their boats are not rising,” the straight-talker said. “They’re a group of have-nots. They’re in the have-not group.” But later, McCain became apologetic. “Maybe I’m not paying enough attention to the poorest of Americans,” he told Chait. “Maybe my priorities are not correct.” Chait also noted McCain’s explanation for the change in his traditional stance on such matters; as a senator, McCain had been a standard Republican supply-side tax-cutter, and now he had adopted a balanced-budget, fiscal caution that flew in the face of his previous stands. “I didn’t pay nearly the attention to these issues in the past,” McCain told Chait. “I was probably a ‘supply-sider’ based on the fact that I didn’t really jump into the issue.” This, again, was the statement of an eighteen-year congressional veteran who was now applying for a move to the White House.

It seems strange to think that a major candidate could be so befuddled by his own budget plans, but several reporters had similar tales about McCain’s work in other policy areas. In a November 1999 Weekly Standard profile, for example, Andrew Ferguson described the sketchy quality of McCain’s approach to many issues. “McCain has prefabricated a brief response for most of the issues,” he wrote. “Some of these responses are innovative, if questionable.” Ferguson offered another striking example of McCain’s slapdash approach:

FERGUSON: On the issue of prescription drug prices, for example, which are far higher here than in any other developed country: “I kept getting asked all these questions about it, so I went back to our guys and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to come up with something here.’ So we kicked around some things for a couple of hours.” What they came up with is a plan for the government to provide money to old people who can’t afford the drugs—a simple, straightforward, and possibly bankrupting solution. He booms the idea at every meeting, though he says, “We haven’t costed it out.”
Did this possibly raise an issue of character? Was it possibly a matter of character when an experienced senator, running for president, couldn’t explain his own budget plan; grossly misstated his opponent’s plan; and “kicked around” another major issue “for a couple of hours,” coming up with a sweeping proposal which he hadn’t “costed out?” If so, questions could have been raised about McCain’s character, because his fumbling with issues was amazingly frequent. In a New Yorker profile, for example, Joe Klein recorded awkward exchanges with McCain about several policy matters. “When asked about the current state of welfare reform, he admitted that he hadn’t given much thought to the hard-core unemployables who soon may be left without benefits,” Klein wrote. “Nor had he given much thought to the estimated thirty percent of teen-age pregnancies that, according to some studies, may be the result of statutory rapes.” And McCain was “boggled by health care,” Klein said. Klein recalled the embarrassing scene when McCain released his plan:
KLEIN: Health care isn’t easy, but McCain is running for president. He had just released, with no small fanfare, a “plan,” but it was almost laughably sketchy—with no real answers for the forty-four million people without health insurance, many of whom work at low-wage jobs. (Even the accompanying fact sheet was filled with errors.)
This December fiasco was widely but briefly reported; indeed, it was rarely mentioned again, as the press corps went back to praising McCain’s character and describing all the fun on his bus. Meanwhile, Jacob Weisberg shared a comical moment concerning McCain’s education proposal. Taking advantage of all that free access, Weisberg challenged McCain on his plan to provide certain public school students with $2000 vouchers to attend private school. According to his profile, Weisberg told McCain that the plan “wouldn’t give vouchers a fair test, because it doesn’t fund the voucher at anywhere near the cost of most private schools.” In response, McCain said that “one of my happiest days in recent years was when my daughter was accepted in Catholic school.” The amusement began after that:
WEISBERG: McCain then called across the aisle of the plane to his wife. “Cindy, good morning. How much is our tuition for Meghan at Xavier?”

“$6,100,” Mrs. McCain answered. “Not including books or uniforms.”
Oops! “McCain seemed surprised at how high it was,” Weisberg wrote. “And the next thing I knew, he was running with my criticism, trashing his own proposal.” McCain quickly turned against his own voucher plan, just as he’d turned against his own tax plan when talking with Chait.

But then, such incidents seemed to plague McCain when he spoke about policy. In the New Yorker, Klein recorded McCain’s admission that he would have to bone up on a wide set of issues. “It occurred to me that such an admission would be disastrous for any candidate playing by the traditional rules of politics,” Klein said, “and particularly for McCain’s primary opponent, George W. Bush.” But thanks in large part to that well-flattered press corps, McCain wasn’t playing by traditional rules. Time and again, reporters put the smiley face on McCain’s misadventures. Weisberg provided a striking example regarding The Case of the Puny Vouchers. “You could say that McCain is to be faulted for not working out a better education proposal in the first place,” he valiantly wrote. “But in a way, being able to profit from valid criticism [Weisberg’s own, of course] is more important than being a master of policy detail.” You could fault McCain? You could fault McCain for offering a major plan on a major subject which he was prepared to abandon at a moment’s notice? According to Klein, scribes would have faulted Bush, quite sternly, for exhibiting such carelessness. Indeed, Weisberg went on to pen a daily column in Slate, recording Bush’s trivial verbal gaffes (“Bushisms”). But that’s how things had begun to go as McCain pulled ahead in the Granite Sate polling. Minor muffs by Bush were ridiculed. Major blunders by McCain were overlooked—or were said to showcase his superior character. As Jonathan Alter had said in November: “The animating principle of McCain’s life is honor…[E]ven his failures just seem to deepen the character lines.” Alter was clearly a prophet among pundits. Throughout the primaries, even McCain’s many failures were spun this way by the press.

McCain’s policy blunders seemed rather common. But typically, these incidents were buried in longer profiles which bragged about the sanctified solon’s remarkable character. Meanwhile, major scribes reported that they “took McCain off the record” when he did things, on his merry bus, like refer to the Vietnamese as “gooks” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/99. In short, these scribes were now actively covering up for McCain—even as they tortured fact and logic to invent the nasty tales about Gore which would send George Bush to the White House.

McCain seemed very foolish this weekend; that rarely happened during Campaign 2000. But the “press corps” was deep in the bag at that time, working hard to promote their great hero. They worked quite hard to puff the man who told them jokes about his stripper ex-girl friends; gave them lots of free, gooey donuts; endlessly told them, again and again, that he simply hated discussing Vietnam; and even told them they were smart. Indeed, there’s much, much more to this gruesome old story; some of it even exists in our archives. For some flavor, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00—part 1 of a four-part report.

THE TEXAS TWO-STEP: Truly, God must have loved the dumb-as-rocks modern journalist, he made so many of them. In an editorial in today’s New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal becomes the latest rube to assert the pure motives of one Matthew Dowd, “who has grown disillusioned with the president and the war, which he made clear in an interview with Jim Rutenberg published in The Times last Sunday.” (Of course, Times lifers have had plenty of practice getting bamboozled by fatuous Dowds.) For our money, Ana Marie Cox made the saddest attempt to parse Matthew Dowd’s motives. We’d love to take Cox’s side some day. But work like this makes it hard:
COX (4/2/07): Like Jay [Carney], I was struck by the sense of remorse—and responsibility—that permeated Dowd's interview, as well as by its apparently spontaneous nature. (A PR person I know asked after she heard the news: "Does he have a book coming out?" He doesn't.)

But what looks like genuine regret to some can be spun as irrational emotionalism by others. Reporters say that the White House has been quietly implying that Dowd's turnaround stems from "personal problems."
See there? Because Dowd doesn’t have a book coming out, his sentiments must be sincere.

No, Dowd hasn’t written a book (as far as we know). But he’s 45, and he has a long, big-bucks career ahead—in political and corporate work. (Unless he does the high-minded “mission work” he blubbered about to the Times.) So how about it? Do you think Dowd wants to pursue that corporate marketing career identified as the horrible creep who managed to sell us on Bush and his war? Duh! We have no earthly way to know if Dowd is sincere in his recent high-minded blubbering. But he has many possible self-serving reasons to jump off Bush’s sinking ship. The fact that Cox and Rosenthal can’t even imagine this fact—well, it just explains why Dowd and his team found it so easy to sell these rubes on Bush’s lunacies in past years. They still believe the sacks of sh*t they were sold about Candidate Gore, for example. But then, it’s easy to sell dog food to a group whose sense of smell is so bad.

Why has the RNC found it so easy to sell so much crap in the past fifteen years? Duh! Because brilliant savants like Rosenthal and Cox were the press corps’ savvy gate-keepers! Was Matt Dowd sincere in the sad tale he sobbed out to the New York Times? We don’t know, but we do know this: When people like Dowd want to flee sinking ships, this is just how they do it. Indeed, Dowd’s former partner, fellow Democrat-turned-Republican Mark McKinnon, told this same story in 1996, when he was jumping the sinking ship known as the Texas Democratic Party. Like McKinnon, Dowd left a sinking ship this week—telling us the same sad tale his partner told eleven years earlier.

Like Dowd, McKinnon was a long-time “top Democratic strategist” in the Lone Star state. In fact, he was bigger than Dowd in the mid-90s—his career was more advanced—which made it surprising when he told the world, in late 1996, that he was all through with all that vile politics. Poor McKinnon! Struggling to type in spite of his tears, he wrote a long piece in the 11/96 Texas Monthly, a piece entitled “The Spin Doctor is Out.” He was all through with politics, he said. And readers, boo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Just as his partner is doing today, McKinnon cried real tears as he told the world how partisan it had all become. Here was his sad, sad synopsis:
MCKINNON (11/96): As a political consultant, I learned the tricks of the trade from James Carville and Paul Begala. I loved playing hardball in a business where winning is everything. But the time came when politics got too partisan, too mean, and too all-consuming—even for me.
Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Like Dowd, McKinnon exposed his delicate soul, and he semi-trashed an assortment of pols—all of them Democrats, of course—who had put him where he was. (By obvious implication, this included Carville and Begala, who weren’t sensitive enough to quit this “mean” business, as soul-shattered McKinnon was doing.) But wouldn’t you know it! Fifteen months later, this soulful fellow was back in politics—this time working for a Republican, Governor Bush! Was McKinnon sincere in that Monthly piece? We don’t have the slightest idea. But he’d managed to exit a sinking ship—and in the process, he had signed on with his state’s biggest ocean liner! In Texas, various columnists chuckled a bit—and they mentioned the sorts of self-serving motives that might have driven this soulful man’s move. For example, here’s a chunk by Alan Bernstein, in the Houston Chronicle:
BERNSTEIN (5/17/98): In an issue of Texas Monthly that came out just before the presidential election of 1996, McKinnon explained in an essay called "The Spin Doctor Is Out" that he was through with partisan politics. He was burned out on the caustic rhetoric of campaigns, on candidates who seemed to lack a core of beliefs and on "last-minute attack and response ads." And he recounted some of the behind-the-scenes foibles of [Texas governor Ann] Richards and other politicians for whom he labored.

McKinnon wrote that he was headed instead for the world of corporate clients, public affairs and nonpartisan contests.

Now the self-imposed exile is over, and McKinnon said it's all because of the agility and integrity of [George W. Bush]: "I was quite happy doing what I was doing. But then I met Governor Bush and that's what changed my mind."

In contrast to some of the awkward or empty candidates that McKinnon portrayed in the magazine article, Bush has courage, character and ideas, according to McKinnon. And in contrast to partisan poison that McKinnon wrote about, bipartisanship is what Bush and Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock engage in, the consultant said.

As you might expect, a few Democratic strategists look differently on McKinnon's motives for associating with the Republican camp. They point out privately that Southwestern Bell and other corporate clients of the public affairs company that employs McKinnon would benefit handsomely from connections to Bush. And they say that any consultant might return to the trench wars for a gubernatorial candidate who happens to be the leading early choice of Republicans nationwide to run for president in 2000.

But McKinnon, on leave from the public affairs firm called Public Strategies, says he will return to the company when the governor's campaign is over. And, he said, he is helping Bush now only for the "personal reward" of working with someone he admires—not for the prospect of getting in on a race for the White House.
He had semi-trashed Richards in 1996 (text below)—and he’d said he was through with politics. But what a miracle! He hadn’t gone off to do mission work in Belize; instead, he’d done big-bucks corporate work, and now, he was working for Governor Bush! And what a surprise! As it turned out, Governor Bush had all the fine attributes he’d once ascribed to Richards! Remember all that “caustic rhetoric”—all those “partisan politics?” Well sir, it just wasn’t like that with high-minded Bush! McKinnon went on to recite this tale for the next five or six years.

Because no, McKinnon didn’treturn to the [private sector] when the [1998] governor's campaign was over,” as he had said he was fixin’ to do. Instead, he stayed in Bush’s employ; in 1999, he formed Maverick Media with another Democrat-turned-Republican, Matthew Dowd, and became the head media guy for Bush’s 2000 White House effort. And somehow, McKinnon managed to suffer through all that campaign’s negativity. In the beginning, it was the RNC which spewed all the crap about Candidate Gore; but by March 2000, Bush was spewing it heavily too, and McKinnon just sat there and took it. No doubt his sensitive soul was singed by all the harsh talk. But if the lying ever bothered this soulful man, he somehow forgot to express it.

So there you se how a Texas hustler works his way off a sinking ship. Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo! In the fall of 1996, McKinnon just couldn’t take it any more—just couldn’t stand all the partisan politics! And Matthew Dowd peddled the same sad tale this past Sunday, in Gotham’s great Times. And readers, God must really love Matt Dowd—he made so many dumb-*ssed rubes who ran out to swear by his story.

Why was it easy for Bush’s hustlers to sell the public their crap all these years? Duh! People like Rosenthal have been on hand, ready to swallow their various stories. Readers, did you know that Al Gore said he invented the Internet? Back in 1999, it went down just like a smooth Scotch.

TOMORROW: Is Dowd sincere? Let’s return to Digby.

GENE LYONS REDUX: That skeptical piece by Alan Bernstein reminds us of a point Gene Lyons made in his critical-but-abandoned-by-liberals book, Fools for Scandal. For years, the Arkansas press corps had been appropriately skeptical of “scandal” claims about Governor Clinton. Local scribes routinely ignored the (bogus) claims of the Arkansas crackpot, kooky-con right. But uh-oh! In 1992, the New York Times showed up in town—and swallowed every bit of the bull-roar! It was the big, smart national press corps which turned out to be gullible rubes, Lyons noted. In particular, they swallowed the Whitewater bull-roar and pimped it hard, giving the name to a decade of inane, history-changing pseudo-scandals.

Ditto with the sad, sad stories told by McKinnon and Dowd. All week long, national reporters have run very fast to insist that Dowd is just sooooo sincere. At least one scribe can tell that he must be sincere—after all, he hasn’t written a book! But when McKinnon sobbed this same sad tale, Bernstein (and other Texas scribes) were less gullible. No, McKinnon didn’t have a book to sell either. But because he wasn’t the world’s dumbest man, Bernstein could imagine other reasons why McKinnon might have made his big switch.

Why was it so easy for Bush’s fixers to sell their bull-sh*t down through the years? Tomorrow, we’ll consider that point a bit more. But go ahead—read Rosenthal’s editorial! Omigod! To this very day, Gotham’s Times is still being run by some of the world’s biggest rubes!

A REAL TEXAS GENTLEMAN: You could tell that McKinnon just hated the negativity because of the way he slimed Ann Richards. Here’s part of his piece in the Texas Monthly—the piece in which he said he was quitting politics because he just hated the negative stuff. He described the hopeless way Richard behaved during lunch with the Post’s David Maraniss, early in her successful 1990 campaign to become Texas governor:
MCKINNON (11/96): Early in the race, I invited [Maraniss] to lunch with Richards. Big mistake.

The lunch was billed as informal—an opportunity for Maraniss to get to know Richards. Richards, however, was extremely apprehensive about the encounter. I was constantly surprised how little confidence she had in herself; I believe she knew what great expectations people had for her, and she worried that she would not measure up. Regarding Maraniss, she feared that he would want to get into a deeply substantive dialogue for which she felt unprepared so early in the race. I assured her that was not the idea.

Trouble hit during salad. After some initial friendly chat, Maraniss pulled out his notebook, and I saw Richards stiffen like deer hearing a hunter. Maraniss asked quite innocently, "So, what do you expect the basic ideas or themes of your campaign to be?"

Richards' fork dropped and clattered onto her plate. She rearranged her napkin in her lap. She turned from Maraniss to me and, colder than an iceberg, said, "Mark, I thought I wasn't going to have to work for my lunch." And that, of course, made it into the Post's story: When asked about her campaign theme, Richards said that she thought she wasn't going to have to work for her lunch.
Good God, what a dumb-ass Richards was! McKinnon offered this unflattering tale in the long article where he explained how much his soul hated negativity.

And uh-oh! He might not have been telling the whole perfect truth! Had Richards coldly rebuked poor McKinnon? In fact, when Maraniss briefly mentioned this incident, he said that Richards had simply been joking! At the time, Richards was facing tough-talking Jim Mattox in the Dem Party primary:
MARANISS (7/3/89): [Mattox] walks with a swagger and is known for trying to bully his opponents. He has associated Richards with controversial feminists. Noting that 65 percent of Richards' money is coming from female contributors, Mattox said Richards might have credibility problems because of the "nontraditional nature of her support." (In an interview with Sam Attlesley, political correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, Mattox said: "I think when you get Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Jane Fonda—ones like that involved in the campaign—I think it tends to turn off a percentage of the population.")

"Since when are women nontraditional?" Richards asked rhetorically in a recent interview. "I think it's really stupid, but frankly I hope that same tenor just continues because, instead of some supporters who may be pleased about my race, when Mattox talks like that it sets their teeth on edge and they become really passionate about it."

But the Richards campaign, only 20 days old, has seemed uncertain about how to respond to Mattox. Richards said she had "never run a negative campaign and [I] don't want to start with this one." But in the first two weeks, rather than stating her ideas and positions, the Richards campaign issued one press release or statement after another attacking Mattox for sending out tax-funded brochures on his accomplishments as attorney general.

When asked to describe the focus and themes of her campaign, Richards seemed taken aback. "I didn't know I would have to work for this lunch," she joked, offering standard remarks on the need for economic development and a commitment to education.
That was it. In real time, Maraniss had said that Richards was joking. But seven years later, McKinnon—weary of all the negativity—told a much less flattering story. Richards, an uppity, unprepared woman, had coldly turned on poor McKinnon, insulting him in front of another grown man! (Compare: Clinton made a man hold her purse! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/07.) Of course, today’s top reporter would instantly know that McKinnon had been completely sincere. But others might imagine this incident differently. In his piece, McKinnon was trashing Big Dems as he fled their ship. He made a point of trashing Richards, these people might think—knowing that, in the coming months, he’d be kiss-kiss-kiss-kissing George Bush.

Wait a minute! That can’t be true! After all, McKinnon hadn’t written a book! To the modern national scribe, that proves his two-step was sincere—just like Dowd’s, years later.