My Kingdom For A Storyline

Is John McCain still a "Maverick?" According to the Wall Street Journal, the answer is a resounding "yes!"

As we’ve seen so often in horse race political coverage, once the press sinks its teeth into a certain storyline it’s nearly impossible to get it to see beyond that storyline, however flawed.

Case in point is a Wall Street Journal piece this morning by Jackie Calmes which, 22 months away from he next presidential election, paints the race as a showdown between two candidates — Hillary Clinton and John McCain — though Calmes does go to the trouble of pointing out that McCain faces some serious hurdles in his bid for the White House.

Still, the article says that McCain, even given “new doubts among Republicans about how formidable” he may be in a presidential contest, is the Republican “front-runner.”

Funny, based on polls we’ve been looking at since back in 2004, the real Republican front-runner is — if the voice of the American people counts for anything — Rudy Giuliani.

In virtually every national poll conducted since 2004, Rudy edges McCain, and all other Republicans, in the minds of voters. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s going to get the nod from the party once it comes down to choosing a candidate, but stories like Calmes’ studiously ignore this mountain of evidence to the contrary to embrace McCain, the press-friendly quote-machine.

And it’s not like there isn’t fresh evidence of Giuliani’s strength in the polls. The latest is a ABC News/Washington Post Poll conducted January 16-19, which had Rudy ahead of McCain by a margin of 34 percent to 27 percent. Not a huge margin, to be sure, but its indicative of a long-term trend in which Giuliani has consistently come out ahead of McCain in both Republican primary and national polls.

Interestingly, though Calmes seems to have a hard time following poll numbers, she does selectively refer to one poll — which both confirms and undercuts her analysis. “Advisers cite the recent ‘Battleground Poll’ conducted by bipartisan pollsters for George Washington University,” she writes, “which suggested Mr. McCain could beat Mrs. Clinton by 10 points. (So could Mr. Giuliani, according to the poll, though his liberal social stances lead many Republicans to conclude he can’t win their nomination.)”

We appreciate the nod to the real Republican front-runner here, but selectively quoting one poll that supports your thesis, while ignoring over two years’ worth of polls that shoot your argument down, is hardly the stuff of great journalism. In fact, we’d say that it more resembles a shoddy attempt to create the conditions required to write the piece that the reporter (or her editor) wanted to write.

And there’s more. What would a suspect piece about John McCain be without a self-parodying “maverick” moment? Calmes suggests that McCain’s continued hawkishness on Iraq and the escalation of the American troop commitment there has been hurting his popularity overall, noting that the “general public, which over time has admired his independence … now overwhelmingly opposes the war.”

Ah yes! His independence. Of course. But this principled, allegedly “independent” streak is hurting him among fellow Republicans who — wait for it — have been “long suspicious of his maverick ways…”

This late in the game, it’s a wonder that reporters, and their editors, aren’t embarrassed to play the hackneyed “maverick” card when discussing McCain. It’s a tired old saw that no longer fits the man— if it ever did. At this point, it’s been well documented that McCain has been waging a kiss-and-make-up campaign with the Republican party’s conservative base — which is both fine and necessary if he is seeking his party’s nomination for the presidency. But caving on so many of his previously held positions, like his harsh criticism of the religious right, (last May he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Bob Jones University), and retreating on pork barrel spending, tax cuts, and last year’s “Torture Bill” doesn’t scream “maverick.” The easily led members of the press, however,—ever vigilant for a reliable storyline—always seem to be the last to know.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.