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THE RULES OF THE GAME! Peter Daou is perfectly right—and by the rules, John McCain must be honest: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 15, 2006

DAOU GETS IT RIGHT: Peter Daou really gets it. To our taste, he’s a bit over-caffeinated in these remarks about Laura Bush, right-winger. But read to the end of his post for the pay-off. This analysis is extremely important:
DAOU (5/14/06): Democratic leaders and strategists are pathologically incapable of going after the media. As Eric Boehlert’s chapter on the Swift Boat attack suggests, the Kerry campaign's mistake was not simply that it didn't hit back early enough, but that it trusted the press to ignore and/or fact-check an obvious smear campaign. (As Kerry's online rapid response and blog outreach director, I can say that Boehlert is on target with this argument).

Laura Bush can teach Dems a lesson: with the facts squarely against her, she still bashes the media. With the facts on their side, Dems shouldn't be reluctant to hold reporters to task for pro-GOP spin.

We plan to discuss Boehlert’s chapter on the Swift Boats ourselves, because we think it’s extremely instructive. But Daou neatly summarizes something we’ve told you, again and again, about the way the press corps gets criticized. Here it goes, as we’ve often said it: When it comes to the notion of “liberal bias,” the other side keeps saying things which are false. And we keep refusing to say what is true! This tendency will badly damage Dems in Campaign 2008, as the press corps rolls out its familiar script: Dem contender are fake, inauthentic. Republicans are straight-talking straight-shooters. This script has been killing Dems for the past fifteen years—and party leaders simply refuses to address it. To all appearances, so do a set of liberal bloggers who are tied to the Dem Party structure.

Result? Get ready to go down once again as the script is applied to McCain. For the latest examples, keep reading.

The press corps has worked off this script for years. And just as Daou says, Democrat leaders and strategists simply refuse to address this problem. Put more simply, they refuse to discuss the way our world works. We hope Daou will speak in more detail—again and again—about this remarkable situation.

THE RULES OF THE GAME: On Saturday, John McCain spoke at Liberty University. To George Stephanopoulos, the speech did something completely predicable—something demanded by the rules. It showed Saint McCain’s depth of charcater:

STEPHANOPOULOS (5/14/06): But a pretty smart move there by John McCain, go to Liberty College [sic], you know, make amends with Jerry Falwell but still get some points for courage because he's talking about an unpopular issue right now, Iraq.
You know the rules! Because McCain defended Iraq in a conservative setting, he gets “some points for courage!” Meanwhile, on Meet the Press, Judy Woodruff said McCain’s speech was smart—because the saint played it so safe:
WOODRUFF (5/14/06): Well, Tim, number one on the speech that John McCain gave, I think it was a smart speech. It was a safe speech. He didn't go beyond what he said before. He didn't say anything he's going to have to defend. The bigger problem for John McCain, though, I think there's to some extent too much focus, too much worry about whether it was the right thing or the wrong thing for him to go off and make a speech to a religious right group. There's a history of prominent politicians doing that. Thirty years ago Teddy Kennedy went to Alabama, sat on a stage with George Wallace, the segregationist governor of that state. So there's a history of that.
When did these become the rules? McCain was now smart for playing it safe! And there’s nothing wrong with what McCain did, since others have done it before!

For the record, we don’t have the slightest problem with McCain speaking at Liberty. Nor do we have any problem with the boilerplate he delivered—boilerplate which will be widely praised, thanks to the rules of the game. But six years ago, the press had a different set of rules—and so did the great brilliant sainted McCain. When George Bush spoke at Bob Jones University, the sainted solon was quite disapproving. On Face the Nation, the greatest man said what he would do in he were ever in such a place:

GLORIA BORGER (2/13/00): Senator McCain, George Bush had a campaign rally at Bob Jones University. It's a pretty controversial place. It's against interracial dating. Some people said he should not have held a rally in Bob Jones. Would you hold a rally at Bob Jones University?

MCCAIN: No, we have no plans to do that.


MCCAIN: And I would certainly condemn the policies which—if I were there, I would condemn openly the policies of Bob Jones because I would want to make sure that everybody knew that this kind of thing is not—is not America.

Bravely, America’s bravest man said that he would have bravely condemned the ban on interracial dating! Why, he would never go near such a place without bravely saying where he stood! But how about Jerry Falwell’s idea that 9/11 was divine retribution against America for acceptance of gays and lesbians? This weekend, McCain didn’t make a peep about that. But then, the rules are now quite different! Woodruff said he was smart to play it safe, and Stephanopoulos said McCain was brave because he discussed Iraq.

Everyone on earth has discussed Iraq. But when the sainted one does it, that’s courage!

At any rate, how about a little history concerning that change in the rules? Back in 2000, Candidate Bush finally had to apologize for having been silent when he went to Bob Jones. The press corps was pimping for Saint McCain then, just as they’re pimping for the sainted man now, and they hammered away at this theme so much that Bush finally had to relent; he tugged at his forelock and said he’d been wrong—oh so wrong—when he didn’t speak out at Bob Jones. Today, of course, the rules are all different. Last Thursday, David Broder ruled that McCain’s “authenticity” would be intact as long as he just didn’t pander to Falwell (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/06). By the rules, he no longer had to dissent. He just had to avoid rank agreement.

Is John McCain still “authentic” despite his speech? Of course he is—the rules demand it! For ourselves, we have no problem with what McCain said—but then, we didn’t cheer him on when he took that brave stand in 2000. And we wouldn’t pretend that McCain “showed courage” by reading a boilerplate speech—even a speech we agree with.

In our view, McCain is pretty much just like Dems. No, we don’t think he’d “sell his soul”—but neither did Kerry, Gore or Clinton. But by the rules of the current game, John McCain has to be vastly different. And every event is going to “prove” it until Dems dare to make it all stop.

OTHERS WHO SPOKE: Predictably, Jon Meacham—following Woodruff on Meet the Press—said the saintly speech was just brilliant. The Parson cleared his throat, then orated, in line with the current hard rules:

MEACHAM (5/14/06): Well, I thought it was a great speech, actually, McCain gave. He did it in a way—you know, my old friend and editor, Charlie Peters, liked to say, "People listen to sermons by reformed sinners," and McCain said, you know, "I've not always heeded the injunction to love one another as I want to be loved." And he said very directly that we have to not only tolerate one another's beliefs but respect them. He did it smartly at Liberty in the context of disagreement about the war in Iraq. What I found fascinating is obviously, the lessons of that can be applied to anything else, any contentious issue. And what he was arguing for was an American way of talking about issues in a way that's sort of straight out of a tradition. There's a line of John Adams, "I hate polemical divinity and polemical politics and I just want to do good by my neighbor and do right by the creation of which I'm an infinitesimal part." And that was sort of the spirit in which McCain was speaking.
It was great when the brilliant man dared to say that we have to respect other peoples’ beliefs! And by the way—on This Week, Donna Brazile showed us how “Democratic leaders and strategists” take on the corps’ greatest saint:
BRAZILE (5/14/06): Look, part of his appeal is that he's a maverick. He's not a politician. He's not a conservative. He's not a Republican. He's someone who speaks who speaks mind. And I think, you know, by pandering to the right, John McCain could lose some of that appeal even as he pick up Republican support—

GEORGE WILL: I'm out of practice defending McCain, but let me—you say he's not a conservative. Pro-life, pro-war, he's now supporting some of the president's tax cuts to make them permanent. He voted to protect gun makers from liability. He's going to vote probably—certainly in Arizona supporting a state initiative to define marriage as between a man and a woman. He'll be against the Federal version of that because he says, “I'm a cultural Federalist.” That's conservatism.

BRAZILE: There's no question he is a conservative—

WILL: It's Western conservatism against Southern.

BRAZILE: But his, his appeal—George, many people don't read the talking points or look at the briefing book and can go down the line. They see this guy as a straight-talker, somebody who is aboveboard and someone that lacks political labels.

To extend Daou’s comments, Democratic leaders and strategists don’t challenge the scripts on McCain—they recite them! Could Brazile recite more of McCain’s talking-points? Only if she speaks very fast.