It's fascinating to me how Republican hacks like David Brooks can find ways to excuse pretty much any bad conduct by the political right. Lately, right-wing pundits give us an interesting mix of editorials first defending McCain's campaign tactics as legitimate, and then suggesting that they are somehow not his fault because he's under the mind control of his campaign advisors. Today, Brooks seems to concede that McCain's campaign has gone dirty, but claims that poor John had no choice.
According to Brooks, if McCain tried to run a clean campaign on the issues he would lose. But no, he's not running a dirty campaign because he wants to win. He's running a dirty campaign because he can't win any other way.1 And that's your fault.
I could easily revise the opening of Brooks' editorial to make it less flattering:
On Tuesdays, Senate Republicans hold a weekly policy lunch. The party leaders usually hand out a Message of the Week that the senators are supposed to repeat at every opportunity. These messages come from political advisors and pollsters who believe that if their carefully constructed half-truths are repeated enough they will provide a political advantage.Brooks sees McCain as inclined toward frivolity, describing his pre-campaign personality as a "frantic and freewheeling style, which was unpredictable, untamed and, at some level, unprofessional." Brooks laments,
John McCain loves these lunches with his gang of fellow ne’er-do-wells.2 Typical of his style, he cracks jokes, razzes the speaker and acts like nobody else in the room has anything important to say. Then he takes the paper with the Message of the Week back to his office. He then gives it to a staffer, typically commanding: “Here’s your message. Learn it. Love it. Live it.”
When McCain and his team set out to win the presidency in 2008, they hoped to run a campaign with this sort of spirit....The problems for McCain apparently started in the primary, where some reporters had the audacity to treat him like every other candidate they covered.
It hasn’t turned out that way. McCain hasn’t been able to run the campaign he had envisioned. Instead, he and his staff have been given an education by events.
McCain started out with the same sort of kibitzing campaign style that he used to woo the press back in 2000. It didn’t work. This time there were too many cameras around and too many 25-year-old reporters and producers seizing on every odd comment to set off little blog scandals.But according to Brooks, having failed to learn the lessons of his primary campaign which he won despite coming across as having "lacked focus", McCain attempted to extend his unsuccessful tactic into the general election.
McCain started his general-election campaign in poverty-stricken areas of the South and Midwest. He went through towns where most Republicans fear to tread and said things most wouldn’t say. It didn’t work. The poverty tour got very little coverage on the network news.I think it's more accurate to say that the press did cover the "poverty tour", but that it didn't work because the public at large doesn't much care about issues of poverty, and it's pretty clear that McCain doesn't either. There may be courage in taking a "poverty tour" into the storm-damaged areas of New Orleans, particularly when your prior message to its residents verged on "Let them eat cake," but which voters did McCain hope to win over with his stunt? (Other than oil industry executives.)
McCain and his advisers realized the only way they could get TV attention was by talking about the subject that interested reporters most: Barack Obama.This, of course, elides McCain's conduct during his primary campaign, in which he engaged in many direct and pointed attacks on Mitt Romney and his record. Those primary campaign tactics are consistent with McCain's present tactics against Obama.
Brooks' analysis then devolves into pure fiction:
McCain started with grand ideas about breaking the mold of modern politics. He and Obama would tour the country together doing joint town meetings.As anybody who follows election campaigns can tell you, the person trailing in the polls always wants more debates; the person leading typically wants fewer. Where was Brooks in 2004, when G.W. tried to limit Kerry to two debates? Also, as should be obvious, this series of "town hall" debates would both avoid any substantive debate of the issues and effectively dictate a large part of Obama's campaign schedule. A win-win-win for McCain, so let's not pretend he had lily-white motives.
He would pick a postpartisan running mate, like Joe Lieberman.I must have missed this tentative choice by McCain, as opposed to his playing around by refusing to deny others' speculation about his potential choices. Surely Brooks isn't simply making this up, and can source this claim? No, wait... you say he's making it up? I'm shocked.
And what, exactly, makes Lieberman "postpartisan"? The fact that he is aligned with McCain and the GOP on numerous issues? Was Zell Miller "postpartisan" as well? By Brooks' apparent definitions, and his apparent believe that a "postpartisan" choice would be so wonderful for the country, why doesn't he urge McCain to choose Lincoln Chafee?
He would make a dramatic promise, like vowing to serve for only one totally nonpolitical term.Again, pure fiction. Even if McCain were inclined to do this it would only work against his campaign - the implicit message being, "I'm so old, I'll only run for one term so I don't end up dying or going senile while in office." But there's absolutely no reason to believe McCain has ever considered running for only a single term, let alone a single "non-political" term.
The issue is not closed, but G.O.P. leaders are resisting a cross-party pick like Lieberman.More fiction. The issues were never open.
McCain and his advisers have been compelled to adjust to the hostile environment around them. They have been compelled, at least in their telling, to abandon the campaign they had hoped to run. Now they are running a much more conventional race, the kind McCain himself used to ridicule.And yet Obama has so far managed to largely avoid engaging in McCain-style dirty campaigning. So Brooks is really telling us that when McCain realized he was unlikely to win on the merits he tossed all of his purported scruples and standards out the window. But only because they "had to"... to win. Which is all that matters, right?
What astonishes me is that there are still people who swallow this tripe. McCain hasn't been forced to do anything. He has chosen to embark on a low-road campaign. If Obama follows suit it will not be because McCain's slimy tactics forced him to do so - it will because he wants to win. The lesson here is how little it takes for McCain to shed his skin, and how readily hacks like Brooks will provide him with cover.
The man who hopes to inspire a new generation of Americans now attacks Obama daily. It is the only way he can get the networks to pay attention.Nonsense. If McCain were to give a speech lamenting the conduct of the media and insisting that they cover specific issues, his statements would dominate media coverage of the campaign. If he were to deplore the media's coverage of personalities or campaign commercials and ask that they substantively look at the contrasts between himself and Obama on specified key issues, the media would dutifully follow his instruction. He doesn't, and he won't, because he loses on the issues.
As a result of McCain's sleaze-ball tactics, Brooks tells us, "A long-shot candidacy now seems entirely plausible." But that's nonsense. The proper question, before or after McCain went dirty, is "Why isn't McCain winning?"
Brooks closes by again "blaming the system" for McCain's conduct:
Both he and Obama had visions of upending the system. Maybe in office, one of them will still be able to do that. But at least on the campaign trail, the system is winning.So why is it that Obama is still in the lead,3 despite not (yet) joining McCain in the
Update: Matt Yglesias suggests that, as Brooks is a long-time McCain fanboy, we owe him the benefit of the doubt. Granted, what one hand giveth the other hand taketh away - the message Yglesias draws from the piece is "Brooks: McCain is an Unprincipled Sellout". But personally, I don't think the tone of the piece was "more in sadness than in anger". I think the piece follows the current "memo of the week", that attempts to distance McCain, the noble maverick former-POW straight-talker, from the tactics of his campaign. Brooks seeks to relieve McCain of both fault and responsibility for his campaign's decisions.
As for a "progressive blogosphere convention that everything David Brooks writes must be read in the most ungenerous way possible", I'm not sure that I'm part of that particular sphere, nor do I take my lead from it. My criticisms of Brooks probably started long before the "ungenerosity" of others. I'm also not one to hand out "benefit of the doubt" like candy. When was the last time Brooks made an error or dubious statement that did not inure to the benefit of the political right? The benefit of the doubt I give him is that I think he's smart enough to know exactly what he's doing. Thus, on those occasions when I take issue with his errors and dubious claims, I hold him responsible for his own words and actions.
1. This, apparently, is a very important distinction.
2. Note that it was Brooks who called McCain a "ne'er-do-well", not me. ("John McCain generally spends the lunches at a table with a gang of fellow ne’er-do-wells.")
3. Pollster.com has Obama leading nationally by 2.6%.