BAD BAD BAD BAD BOYS MAKE KARL FEEL SO GOOD?
Yesterday, Politico's Ben Smith noted that John McCain was getting bad press, from The Washington Post and The New York Times in particular, in reaction to his recent attack-dog posture. Smith concluded:
[McCain's] campaign has clearly done the math and decided it's worth the cost....
But does the McCain campaign really think there's a cost attached to increasing negativity from the mainstream press? Or is the campaign trying to induce that negativity, knowing that it will never go too far (we're talking about the press and McCain, after all) and believing that bad press is very, very good for McCain?
The Times blames Roveites:
...[McCain] clearly tossed his inhibitions aside earlier this month when he put day-to-day management of his campaign in the hands of one acolyte of Mr. Rove and gave top positions to two others.
I assume the culprit is Rove himself, working behind the scenes. I assume he's trying to turn McCain back into what McCain was in his youth, a bad boy -- and not just a bad boy, but pretty much the bad boy of Rove's dreams.
Let's recall what Rove said about his first meeting with George W. Bush:
"I can literally remember what he was wearing: an Air National Guard flight jacket, cowboy boots, complete with the -- in Texas you see it a lot -- one of the back pockets will have a circle worn in the pocket from where you carry your tin of snuff, your tin of tobacco. He was exuding more charisma than any one individual should be allowed to have."
Now compare McCain as a youth. Here's Robert Timberg's description of McCain at his prep school, from page 32 of The Nightingale's Song:
He was known as Punk, alternatively as Nasty, in another variation, McNasty. He cultivated the image. The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogart-style from his lips.... he mocked the school's dress code by wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and otherwise affecting a screw-you raffishness. He would later describe himself in those days as a rebel without a cause....
Rove did quite well for himself tapping into his own dreamy idealization of Bush. With Bush, he mostly kept the baby-kissing-reformed-sinner side in the foreground and used the bad-boy side as seasoning. That made sense -- Bush ran against two guys who were portrayed as geek losers, so it made sense to run Bush as the popular Big Man on Campus.
But McCain's opponent is no unpopular geek -- so how does Rove run against him? Maybe he runs his candidate as a rebel, a cool guy, someone who gets bad press because he shocks respectable society.
Hell, if you were Rove, you might even try to get ex-aides to say things like this:
John Weaver, for years one of John McCain's closest friends and confidants, has been in exile since his resignation from McCain's presidential campaign last year. With the exception of an occasional interview, he has, by his own account, bit his tongue as McCain's campaign has adopted a strategy that Weaver believes "diminishes John McCain."
With the release today of a McCain television ad blasting Obama for celebrity preening while gas prices rise, and a memo that accuses Obama of putting his own aggrandizement before the country, Weaver said he's had "enough."
The ad's premise, he said, is "childish." ...
The blog post I'm quoting, from The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, goes on to note that
Weaver remains in contact with senior McCain strategists and, for a while early this year, regularly talked to McCain.
OK, maybe that's a bridge too far -- maybe Weaver wasn't really dispatched by the campaign to express a "square's" horror at McCain's rakishness. But I think his reaction to McCain-as-James-Dean, and the reactions of the Post and the Times, are just what Rove and McCain want right now.
MORE GOP GASPS REPORTED IN THE "LIBERAL MEDIA": Steve Benen points to this quote at the Huffington Post:
Alex Castellanos, one of George W. Bush's media mavens in 2000 and 2004, had a different take: "The problem is that 'advertising', i.e., anything that smells even faintly false, contradicts his persona," Castellanos said. "John McCain is the un-cola of politics, the anti-politician. And few things are more political than negative commercials that draw attention to themselves as 'advertising' designed to manipulate voters and not as 'information' designed to inform them. You can't be the un-cola and Coca Cola too."
So McCain loyalist Weaver and GOP operative Castellanos blabbed like this, on the record and for attribution, to the press. Curious.
But wait, there's more: The Huffington Post also has a piece titled "Conservatives Wonder If Negative Ads Could Reduce McCain's Stature," which quotes David Frum's concerns. Another loyalist going on the record for an "enemy" journalist!
And even before these people went public, Marc Ambinder was telling us that "The cadre of McCain allies who aren't part of the campaign are very worried" about McCain's negative attacks. When I read that a couple of days ago, I took it at face value, but now I'm thinking maybe I was gulled. Maybe all these journalists are being gulled. Maybe Team McCain (i.e., Team Rove) is gleefully feeding expressions of shock to the press in the hope that the press will eat it up -- which is precisely what's happening -- so the McCain attacks will garner more attention and McCain will be seen as the bad boy whose back-alley tactics are controlling how this contest is being fought.