The best aspect of a McCain presidency is that, while it would probably follow the policies of George W. Bush, it would put an end to the politics of Karl Rove . . . . In Bush's Washington, critics are enemies to be dismissed rather than engaged. A McCain presidency would promise to dismantle the whole Rovian method that has torn open such a deep wound in the national psyche.
From The New York Times Editorial Page, yesterday:
On July 3, news reports said Senator John McCain, worried that he might lose the election before it truly started, opened his doors to disciples of Karl Rove from the 2004 campaign and the Bush White House. Less than a month later, the results are on full display. The candidate who started out talking about high-minded, civil debate has wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Rove's low-minded and uncivil playbook.
From The New York Times today:
After spending much of the summer searching for an effective line of attack against Senator Barack Obama, Senator John McCain is beginning a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency. . . . Mr. McCain's campaign is now under the leadership of members of President Bush's re-election campaign, including Steve Schmidt, the czar of the Bush war room that relentlessly painted his opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, as effete, elite, and equivocal through a daily blitz of sound bites and Web videos that were carefully coordinated with Mr. Bush's television advertisements.
The run of attacks against Mr. Obama over the last couple of weeks have been strikingly reminiscent of that drive, including the Bush team's tactics of seeking to make campaigns referendums on its opponents -- not a choice between two candidates -- and attacking the opponent's perceived strengths head-on.
There's obviously nothing surprising about the McCain campaign's reliance on the standard, personality-based attacks that the GOP uses every election year. It's long been obvious to everyone outside of The TNR Circle that McCain's only prospect for winning would be to move the election away from debates over issues (where his positions are widely rejected by the public) and instead demonize Barack Obama as an effete, elitist, effeminate, far Leftist, terrorist-loving radical, and it was equally obvious that McCain -- "drooling for power like a fruit bat with rabies," as Matt Taibbi put it in November, 2006 -- would eagerly employ those Rovian tactics. That may be a surprise to long-time Beltway McCain worshipers such as Chait and The Washington Post's David Ignatitus (who today longed for McCain's "healing gift," "this fiercely independent man," and "not the heroism but the humility"), but not to anyone else. What is far more notable than McCain's now almost-complete reliance on Rovian demonization themes is how obediently the establishment media has been spouting and disseminating them. Five weeks ago, on June 23, Karl Rove appeared at a breakfast with Republican insiders at the Capitol Hill Club, mocked Obama as "the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by," and labeled him "cooly arrogant." Ever since, that Obama is "arrogant" -- and the related sin: "presumptuous" -- has become standard, mandated media script.
It's now literally difficult to find a discussion of Obama in the establishment press that isn't based on this personality-based theme -- with media stars either expressing the opinion themselves or repeating it as a McCain talking point. Last night, CNN's Campbell Brown, hosting Anderson Cooper's show, framed the show this way:
But is Obama vulnerable? Is he arrogant? . . . David, the McCain campaign, Republicans, they are consistently playing up this notion that Obama is presumptuous, arrogant. Can they stick him with this label?
Here's the front page of Politico today:
This is exactly what happens every single election cycle. The Right spews some petty, personality-based attack, and the chirping media birds then mindlessly repeat it until it's lodged into our discourse as accepted fact. That's the media strategy on which the Right is relying to win the election this year again -- dictating the songs sung by the vapid, chirping press birds -- even as they petulantly and incessantly complain that the same media stars who serve this strategy are stacked against them. Yesterday's, National Review's Rich Lowry posted what he called "musings from a shrewd friend" about a Dana Milbank column in yesterday's Washington Post that repeated every last "Obama-is-arrogant" clichÃƒ© ("there are signs that the Obama campaign's arrogance has begun to anger reporters"). Lowry's "shrewd" friend:
[Obama's] showing hubris and contempt for the rest of us in how he considers America fundamentally broken and he's the solution. Messianism is usually a quality you don't want in a president. This was always the soft underbelly of his candidacy. They've gotten too caught up in their own story. What always does in a celebrity? Overexposure. The question now is whether Dana Milbank is the bird leaving the wire and every other bird in the press follows him or not. If this narrative sets in, Obama might have to move up his VP announcement to change the story.
Actually, Milbank wasn't pioneering anything. He was just doing what Beltway reporters do -- repeating what he's been hearing as standard conventional Beltway media wisdom handed down from Rovian/McCain operatives: Obama is an arrogant, presumptuous elitist. The birds who led the flock are Karl Rove, Steve Schmidt and comrades. Milbank was just one of the many birds "leaving the wire" and following along. After elections are completed and the GOP wins, the establishment media loves to look back and admit what they did -- only to do it over and over. During the 2004 election, The New York Times' Adam Nagourney pathetically granted anonymity to Bush campaign operatives -- in a front-page NYT article -- to label John Edwards "The Breck Girl" and to say that John Kerry "looks French." That's how the NYT's premiere political reporter used a grant of anonymity. In 2007 -- in the midst of the media's pathological obsession with John Edwards' haircuts -- Nagourney wrote a partial mea culpa with this bleedingly obvious insight:
The tale of John Edwards' $400 haircuts may have ended -- or at least his campaign hopes it ended -- when Mr. Edwards told Iowans on Friday that he was embarrassed by the episode. It arguably began four years ago this weekend with a story in The New York Times about the White House's strategy for dealing with prospective Democratic challengers to President Bush. In the last paragraph of that story, which I wrote with a colleague, Richard W. Stevenson, an unnamed "Bush associate" was quoted as referring to Mr. Edwards as "the Breck Girl of politics." Another Bush adviser, again unnamed, was quoted as saying of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, "he looks French."
In both instances, we were attempting to flesh out for readers the White House's plans for discrediting prospective Democratic opponents. Both people quoted were at the senior levels of the Bush political operation. And in both cases -- as Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards could certainly attest by the end of 2004 election -- the Bush machine had followed through on the plan it laid out 18 months earlier to define the Democrats on Republican terms.
Our story may have had the result of not only previewing what the Bush campaign intended to do, but, by introducing such memorably biting characterizations into the political dialogue, helping it.
Was that a mistake on our part? Perhaps. . . .
As anyone who has interviewed Mr. Edwards, or seen him this year talking with voters about, say, his health care plan, the lightweight label seems unfair, whatever you think of his politics. Voters routinely walk away from such events describing him as a substantial candidate immersed in serious issues. But last week, as the story of the haircuts reverberated across Iowa and New Hampshire, on to the Drudge Report and finally to both David Letterman and Jay Leno, it was a reminder that, fair or not, this remains a persistent vulnerability for Mr. Edwards.
GOP operatives whisper insipid, petty, snide (though highly coordinated) gossip into the hungry ears of Beltway reporters about the effete, girly, arrogant liberal. Reporters then -- uncritically and endlessly -- repeat what they hear until it completely dominates and overwhelms our political discourse, and then -- "fair or not" -- becomes entrenched narrative.
This is what happens over and over and over. Media stars love to be used this way. The themes never change and neither does the process. Still, it's amazing how fast it travels from Karl Rove's lips and then out of the mouths of the vast bulk of "journalists" covering the presidential race for establishment media outlets. As Gloria Borger of CNN and U.S. News & World Report said: "when Rove speaks, the political class pays attention -- usually with good reason." The fact that they all say the same thing at once ("up next: Is Obama arrogant?" -- "Obama's arrogance can hurt him" -- "Obama is striking many as arrogant and presumptuous" -- "Obama needs to be careful not to appear too arrogant") doesn't strike any of them as evidence that they're mindless, manipulated spouters of conventional wisdom. They actually think it proves the opposite -- that it's evidence that they are political sophisticates plugged into the important election themes ("Obama is arrogant and presumptuous").
The most inane part of it all is that even as they willingly serve as the GOP's attack amplifiers, they simultaneously and openly fret that they're being unfair to Republicans and too biased towards liberals -- a message that they also get from the same GOP operatives who so transparently write their script. Thus, without any recognition whatsoever of how contradictory they are, the two predominant themes from our establishment journalists are now this: (1) Obama is an arrogant, presumptuous, effete liberal whose arrogance is deeply unattractive, and (2) we in the media are far too enamored of Obama and unwilling to criticize him because we're biased members of the Liberal Media.
UPDATE: While on the subject of The New Republic, it's worth noting that Eric Alterman yesterday conclusively chronicled the latest reckless, purely fictitious "journalism" from Marty Peretz's personal assistant, Jamie Kirchick (also of Commentary and a frequent contributor to Politico). Even with journalistic standards as low as they are -- both at those publications and generally -- it's quite revealing that someone with Kirchick's record is continuously featured by TNR and in similar venues. Just read the mountain of quite representative comments to Kirchick's latest post to see how even many long-time, loyal TNR readers now view that magazine's product.
UPDATE II: In Salon's War Room, Alex Koppelman posts the latest Obama ad, clearly a response to these McCain attacks:
The Obama campaign is far better than the Kerry campaign was at aggressively responding to attacks launched at it, but they are still clearly unwilling (just as Kerry was, and just as Michael Dukakis was) to attack the GOP candidate with similar attack themes. The Obama campaign seems to believe that such attacks are counter-productive.UPDATE III: As is often the case, Bob Somerby has many insightful observations today about how this process is unfolding, with a focus on what he aptly called Dana Milbank's "gruesome performance" in the Post yesterday (h/t Kitt). As sysprog notes: "Closing the circle -- Milbank came to the WaPo, in 1999, from . . . TNR." Beltway circles are always closed so tightly and reliably in that way. If its results weren't so ugly, there would actually be a perverse beauty to how it works.
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.