The past is nice, but John McCain’s present is about to catch up with him.
He has until now been a blank slate, allowing Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and everyone in between to imagine that he’s one of them. John Anderson was such an early heartthrob in 1980. Ross Perot made pulses go pitter-patter in ‘92.
George W., if he listens to the instincts that won him two terms as the governor of Texas, is about to challenge that. If he does, the South Carolina primary will be the hottest ticket of the season.
The Republicans on the right who often determine whether Republican candidates win or lose are saying that Mr. McCain is not really a conservative, and some of the Democrats who have been romancing him are beginning to say the Republican conservatives are right. The New Republic magazine, the conscience of the Volvo-and-bean-sprout Democrats, put Mr. McCain on its cover this week with this headline splashed across his face: “This man is not a Republican.”
New Hampshire changed things a little, but the senator’s presidential campaign is so far a creation almost altogether of the media, with whom he has had a remarkable midwinter romance. He won the Pundit Primary in a runaway weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and the effects linger. The boys and girls on the campaign bus worked over George W. through November and December for having so many friends who want to give him money, or tried to prove that he smoked a joint in junior high school and danced naked on a table top in college, or that he isn’t even smart enough to be a television journalist. But, despite the euphoria in the wake of the New Hampshire vote, the bias that gave Mr. McCain a free ride these past few weeks is suddenly the topic of sheepish conversation every time two journalists gather to sip a glass of white whine.
This talk is beginning to seep into the public prints and the TV talk shows. To ask the question “Has the media been too kind to McCain?” is to suggest the answer. You might think that this sudden reflection on what the media has wrought is driven by embarrassment or even regret, but it’s actually fear of getting caught.
The senator is clearly not conservative enough for the true blues, but he’s much too blue to suit those who have overlooked embarrassing details in the expectation they can make him over later. How could someone who hates the tobacco companies, someone so eager to “reform” campaign-finance laws to cripple Republican access to voters and leave conservative interests to the media’s sense of objectivity and fair play, be all bad?
Nevertheless, what if John McCain actually believes some of the stuff he says he believes? On abortion, for example. Like George W., he’s against it. Or taxes. Like George W., he wants to give back some of the money the government has seized from the taxpayers, just maybe not quite so much. He has given terrifying answers on the military. Like George W., he vows to rebuild it as a fighting force and not as an arm of the ACLU. Or gay “marriage.” Like George W., he says husbands should have female wives. Like George W., he even honors the Confederate battle flag, and he may have to salute it again in the next fortnight.
Until now, the media has been content to overlook all this, confident that with proper tutelage he’ll “grow” in office and abandon the inconvenient convictions left over from irresponsible early years. But what if he doesn’t?
There’s worse. He’s a favorite of a lot of leaders in corporate America, just the sort of corporate clones that journalists instinctively despise most. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, the senator has leashed government regulators and blocked legislation expanding the regulatory bureaucracy. He occasionally snaps at big business, threatening airlines and railroads and cable-TV companies and Internet enterprises with legislation to make them knock off the abuse of consumers, but he always backs down when the offenders promise to be nice. Corporate America has learned that he’s mostly buzz and not a lot of bite. AT&T, the regional Bells, Microsoft, Time Warner, Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs, for a few examples, eagerly throw money at his campaign. And why not? As long as he doesn’t bite they’re cheerfully willing to put up with the buzz.
This gives George W. opportunity. He can draw out the senator, forcing him to court South Carolina Republicans in such a way as to render him of no further use to the media that has been romancing him like a cheap date at closing time. A lot of the guys following him across New Hampshire have been hoarding tapes of indiscreet conversations, in the expectation of using them on that inevitable day when everyone else does. The senator should beware. It’s what sheep do.