The Comeback (To Substance)

Comeback narratives should take a backseat to substantive coverage

The Los Angeles Times’s top political story this morning has the headline: “McCain is looking for another comeback.” Its point is clear (and has a familiar echo); even as McCain tries to consolidate his message in the last few weeks of this election, Republican strategists and advisors disagree on what that message should be. The senator from Arizona, as much as he relishes being an underdog, is not in a very happy place right now:

For just about every Republican urging McCain to focus relentlessly on the economy, there was another who said McCain should continue questioning Obama’s character by citing his association with William Ayers, a Vietnam-era radical. Some said the GOP nominee needed to do both, and also bring up the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s controversial former pastor; others called that a mistake and said that a mix of messages was part of McCain’s problem.

While it’s not so interesting that the LAT should prominently use the word “comeback”—a word that takes its place in the hallowed halls of political rhetoric at least once an election cycle—it is interesting, and disappointing, that the morning after Obama unveiled an aggressive plan (in Toledo, Ohio) to help victims of the financial crisis, the bigger headline is McCain’s struggle to come back.

McCain’s rather discombobulated search for sustained momentum during the last couple of weeks highlights yet again a fundamental challenge in this campaign—the coverage of tactics vs. substance. His own speech yesterday marked a change in the GOP ticket’s tone from last week’s character attacks, but it wasn’t a substantive speech (look forward to that today). In contrast to Obama, who laid out the details of an economic “rescue plan” that includes a moratorium on home foreclosures (and which deserves much scrutiny), McCain used his stump time to cast himself again as the underdog who likes being the underdog (or, as he said to supporters in Virginia Beach, Va., “My friends, we’ve got them just where we want them”). This merits somewhat less scrutiny.

The Boston Globe (which also runs an editorial endorsing Barack Obama this morning), headlines its top politics story “Consistent message eluding McCain,” and characterizes McCain’s speech as having “politically broad appeal”:

Yesterday, after a week of pugnacious scrutiny of Democrat Barack Obama’s relationships with a terrorist and convicted felon, McCain unveiled a new speech that did not deal with his opponent’s character at all.

Instead, in two traditionally Republican states, he made a politically broad appeal, disparaging “the last eight years” under President Bush, emphasizing policy differences with Democrats, and recasting his own life experience for the crisis facing the country.

What America needs in this hour is a fighter, someone who puts all his cards on the table and trusts the judgment of the American people,” he said, embracing the role of underdog…

Both the Globe and LAT articles do a decent job creating an image of McCain’s faltering campaign, but they also underscore journalists’ propensity to showcase the “underdog,” because it makes for a good story. As we near the campaign’s end, though, the coverage shouldn’t focus on the political maneuvering that the “comeback” talk is; it should allot more and more time and weight to substantive offerings from the candidates.

Two recent take-outs from a couple of veteran political reporters help distinguish between the wheat and the chaff during these last few weeks. Both viewpoints—from Adam Nagourney at the New York Times and from Dan Balz at the Washington Post—suggest ways for the press to cover the frontrunner-underdog foil.

The title of Nagourney’s web post makes his position clear: “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.” Citing Howard Wolfson’s “It’s Over” blog post in The New Republic, in which Wolfson declared Obama’s victory a done deal, Nagourney responds with a not so fast, and lays out a few things that might turn the tide (from, say, the difference between high voter registration and high voter turnout, to the pendulum theory, wherein the press’s “tendency to find the ‘underdog is surging’ story line irresistible” could swing the national mood back to McCain).

None of these chance elements are new, but in listing them, Nagourney by proxy urges a generosity for the unexpected tempered by a sharp-eyed awareness of existing (and changing) patterns.

Balz, on the other hand, argues that given Obama’s frontrunner status and the particularly difficult burdens the new president would immediately shoulder (“It is hard to think of a new president who inherited such a rapidly altered landscape”), any undue attention given to the underdog is ultimately selling the public short:

For the past two weeks, the focus of the presidential campaign has been on John McCain. Given the state of the race, it may well stay there for a while. What can McCain do? Should he attack more? Should he go all positive? Can he come back?

With 22 days left in the race, that’s understandable. McCain is the focus because what was thought to be a close race doesn’t look like one at this moment. Which is all the more reason that the real focus now ought to be on Barack Obama.

The presidential race is not over, but at this point, Obama has a better chance of becoming president than McCain, and as a result, the questions ought to be going toward him as much or more than McCain — questions not of tactics but of substance.

Balz suggests, in conclusion, that “there ought not to be any moratorium on asking hard questions of both candidates right now, and especially of the Democratic nominee who sits in the pole position heading into the final three weeks.”

While Balz’s implicit suggestion to forget McCain is dubious, he does strike at a key point: these final weeks may very well inform the extent of our satisfaction in January. Both Nagourney and Balz suggest that the press handle the foregone conclusion aspect of the campaign with more foresight. This includes further (and maybe even harder) scrutiny of Obama’s new plan, and it also includes a more measured look at what the comeback kid is doing—substantively—to really come back.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.