Sympathy won’t suffice

Since The New York Times printed unsubstantiated rumors hinting that GOP presidential candidate John McCain may have had some sort of “relationship” with a blond lobbyist, pundits have been suggesting that this attack solved McCain’s problems on the right.

The theory seems to be that conservatives will rally to McCain simply because they don’t like the “liberal mainstream media” as personified by the Times and that, therefore, he will henceforth be able to count on enthusiastic conservative support regardless of past differences on issues. Indeed, his campaign advisers have been arguing that as the “enemy of my enemy,” McCain must be accepted as a friend.

Many conservatives did indeed leap to McCain’s defense as he faced the first onslaught from the Times. Some couldn’t resist an “I told you so,” as the candidate who has counted a friendly media as part of his base took a sucker punch from the leader of the pack. Although most conservatives upbraided the Times for the obviously contrived attack on a man who, for all his many faults, deserved better, it doesn’t follow that they are ready to forget their past differences with the putative GOP candidate. I was appalled by the attack and joined in the reaction to it, but like many of my fellow conservatives, I think I can speak up for a man who is being treated unfairly without making him a hero. The Times’s own ombudsman gagged on the story for many of the same reasons that conservatives did, but something tells me he won’t run around the newsroom demanding that his colleagues vote for the Arizonan as a result.

The fact that the Times had its now-infamous hit piece “in the can” while endorsing McCain over his Republican primary competitors underscores what many conservatives have believed all along: The senator may be the major media’s favorite Republican, but he won’t be able to count on his friends in the press when he’s facing a Democrat. If McCain faces up to this fact, he will have learned much. Many of us believe that in recent years McCain has taken too many positions not out of principle but to cozy up to his buddies who ride with him on the “Straight Talk Express.”

If McCain learns the right lesson from this episode, he will come to the realization that the solid support of those who make up the base of his party is far more valuable than the ephemeral friendship of reporters and media stars with an agenda hostile to his own. And that could make it far easier for him to deal with the continuing queasiness on the right.

The belief that the hostility of liberals within the media will be enough to energize conservatives behind a candidate about whom most have serious misgivings is naïve and based on the implicit assumption that we’re a pretty simple-minded bunch. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman, who is usually more discerning, suggested last week that while McCain “was straining to ingratiate himself with the activists gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference” a few weeks ago out of a fear that he might not be able to unite his party’s base, he “shouldn’t have worried.”

The fact is that conservatives have substantive disagreements with McCain that are deep and real. Their feelings about McCain-Feingold and the First Amendment implications of stifling advocacy advertising are real, as are their questions about his penchant for government regulation and interference and his current position on the Bush tax cuts in light of the fact that he claims to get much of his economic advice from the “Concord Coalition,” an organization that has never seen a tax increase it couldn’t support. These issues and questions about his support of Second Amendment issues and concerns about many of the people around him won’t go away because The New York Times doesn’t like him.

Chapman, like many of his colleagues, however, seems actually to believe that all it took was one attack from the Times to turn things around, make McCain a hero of the right and solve the problems he and his advisers had found so vexing. Conservatives are not quite that easily flummoxed; they may want to be able to support McCain and most may end up working for him as well as voting for him, but it won’t be because of an idiotic editorial decision at The New York Times.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com