Saturday, February 23, 2008


Well, it's obvious that the decision at The New York Times to lead with hints of adultery in the story about John McCain's coziness with lobbyists was a huge gift to McCain. But would a sex-free story really have damaged his image?

Obviously, a story with the sex left out wouldn't have had this set of unintended consequences:

Conservative radio talk show hosts who had long reviled Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential candidate from Arizona, had rallied to his defense. Bloggers on the right said that this could be the start of a new relationship. Most telling, Mr. McCain's campaign announced Friday afternoon that it had just recorded its single-best 24 hours in online fund-raising, although it declined to provide numbers....

But does it really hurt McCain in any case to say he's not the ethically clean guy he wants you to think he is (as we're also being told in other, sex-free media accounts)? I wonder. I'm just not convinced that that's why McCain is winning primaries or running more or less even with Democratic challengers in polls. I know hardcore Limbaughnista Republicans hate his campaign finance crusade and regard the unlimited access of lobbyists as, God help us, a free speech issue. And as for the general public, I know cleaning up Washington is very low on the list when voters are asked to name the biggest problem facing the country.

Isn't all this a central element of McCain's image? That he's a "straight talker" and "straight shooter"? Again this is a hunch, but I think, for voters, McCain's image is as a guy who sometimes says impolitic things -- and that's what "straight talk" means to them. They think he challenges orthodoxies, even those of his own party. They think of him as a guy who'll sometimes anger his party-mates and reach across the aisle. (Obama's image is somewhat similar, and it's clearly helping him with independents.) An alleged willingness to reject the party line is what's "straight" about McCain's "shooting," at least according to the myth that's been built up.


So far, what we're talking about when we talk about the inclusion of a sex angle in the Times story is the journalistic propriety of doing so. For the most part, we're not talking about the alleged sex itself.

That's a good thing for Democrats, I think -- I know a lot of you find the notion repulsive, but I think more talk about the sex would make at least some voters think of McCain as human and vigorous. That might actually help him.

By the way, Lucianne Goldberg, of all people, is already playing up this angle:

(Click to enlarge, if you're so inclined.)

I get a lot of disagreement when I say this, but I think McCain is already seen as a relaxed regular guy, "comfortable in his own skin" as the pundit gasbags like to say. Obama, too -- but I worry that seeming to have moral flaws would actually give McCain a leg up in that contest, at least as it'll play out in the media narrative between now and November.

Eventually, I fear the GOP is going to try to portray Obama the way it portrayed Gore -- as prissy, goody-goody, sanctimonious, effete. Maureen Dowd and Chris Matthews would eat that meme up. The contrast could be John McCain, tough old rumpled horndog.

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