Last week—the first following the McCain campaign’s big shakeup—was supposed to have marked a New Beginning for the Arizona senator. It was supposed to have been a week of surging, of streamlining, of charm-offense-ing, a week in which the candidate would reveal himself anew to the American electorate.
But the best laid plans, and all that. The past seven days, instead, have amounted to one of the worst weeks John McCain has faced since he claimed the presumptive GOP top spot—and possibly since, for that matter, those dark days last summer when reporters and pundits alike were playing the McCain campaign death watch game with nearly no sense of irony. It’s been a week filled with a series of unforced errors—a sequence of faults that cannot be dismissed as simple ‘missteps’ or ‘blunders’ or ‘slips’ or ‘gaffes.’ They can fairly be called only lapses—in fact, in judgment, in rhetoric—and they have been, for the most part, committed by the candidate himself:
• On Monday, McCain, asked about social security in a town hall, called the fact “that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today” a “disgrace.” But as Zachary Roth noted, the very funding mechanism McCain mentioned as disgraceful “constitutes the basic principle of the Social Security program since its inception.”
• On Wednesday, McCain was in Pittsburgh. Asked what he thinks of when he thinks about Pittsburgh, he replied, “When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the pressures, physical pressures on me, I named the starting lineup, defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron mates.” Except, as Jake Tapper notes, “the Steelers aren’t the team whose defensive line McCain named for his Vietnamese tormentors. The Green Bay Packers are. At least according to every previous time McCain has told this story.” And McCain has mentioned the anecdote several times, not only in his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, but also in publicity slots for the A&E movie based on it.
• Also on Wednesday, The Washington Times published McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm’s comments about the country being in merely a “mental recession” and America being “a nation of whiners.”
• Also on Wednesday, a reporter asked McCain about the comment his surrogate (and potential running mate) Carly Fiorina had made earlier that day: “There are many health insurance plans that will cover Viagra but won’t cover birth-control medication. Those women would like a choice.” Asked to respond to Fiorina’s comment, McCain—who in 2003 voted against a bill that would require health insurance companies to cover prescription birth control—fidgeted, then admitted, “I don’t know what I voted.”
• Also on Wednesday, reacting to Iran’s missile launches and criticizing Obama’s positions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (which claims credit for those launchings), McCain said, “This is the same organization that I voted to condemn as a terrorist organization when an amendment was on the floor of the United States Senate. Senator Obama refused to vote.” Except: McCain also missed that vote (on 2007’s Kyl-Lieberman amendment). And Obama co-sponsored a different bill that designated the group a terrorist organization.
I mention these not by way of calling out the McCain campaign—mistakes happen; that’s part of life on the trail—but, rather, by way of calling out the media that report on it. Where’s the mass coverage of these errors? While we got bits and pieces of reporting on the lapses, especially in the blogosphere, little of that permeated into the overall campaign narrative that most voters rely on for their political news. On yesterday’s Reliable Sources on CNN, Howard Kurtz listed the six topics his week-in-review-like show would cover—including the Obama girls’ Access Hollywood interview and Lara Logan’s juicy tabloid fodder—and mentioned nothing about McCain’s mistakes. Indeed, we heard almost nothing in the mainstream press about McCain’s Steelers/Packers confusion. Same with the voting record flaps.
You have to wonder: would another candidate, even (erstwhile?) media darling Obama, receive such kid-glove treatment?
Indeed, instead of criticism for McCain, there was appreciation. Yesterday’s New York Times fronted a long article headlined, “McCain’s Conservative Model? Roosevelt (Theodore, That Is).” The piece, based on a long interview with the candidate (forty-five Maverick minutes!) was all-McCain, all-the-time; it glossed over his mistakes as “missteps,” without further explanation, moving on to explain how McCain is TR-esque in his conservatism. As the cherry on top of McCain’s Sunday, Mark Halperin, wizard of conventional wisdom, declared yesterday that McCain had “won the week.” (All of the above and still won the week!)