There is instrumentalism in reform. Who wins and who loses is calculated and anticipated, but isn’t always known. Perhaps the events of a single Tuesday can indicate what may happen 100 Tuesdays from now.
“The Gray Lady” spent Tuesday keeping tabs on 2008 Presidential hopefuls it calls “Dueling Conservatives”: Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney. Adam Nagourney, New York Times, p.20, Nov. 21, 2006. That either man is a conservative is news to all but readers of the New York Times; but no matter. The Times tars McCain as a “conservative” who can’t win conservatives; reporting that “McCain … struggle[d] yet again to firm up his position with the right on Sunday,” even as he says the Roe v. Wade abortion decision should be overturned. Not to be outdone in the battle for conservative primary voters, Gov. Romney will ask his State’s supreme court to order a question banning same sex marriage onto the ballot if legislators fail to do so. Id.
Governor Romney is a Mormon, which raises in the minds of some voters the issue of polygamy. Mormons in America have wrestled in obscurity with the question of polygamy for 150 years, or so. Yet, by measure of the front page of the Washington Post the same Tuesday, polygamy is fast becoming a national issue, and a struggle “[c]onsciously taking tactics from the gay-rights movement;” a tactic that won’t gain it adherents among conservatives. We are reminded by the Post that polygamy “has deep roots in Utah’s history and in the history the Church of Latter-day Saints. Many mainstream Mormons once believed, and many fundamentalists still believe, that only men in plural marriages will get to heaven.” A large photo of “Mormon FOCUS” magazine depicting three “sister-wives” sits atop the jump page. John Pomfret, “Polygamists Fight to Be Seen As Part of Mainstream Society” Washington Post, A1, Nov. 21, 2006. The Post says the polygamy issue is growing because of Sup. Ct. Justice Kennedy’s opinion on sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas, but also mentions that “HBO’s series ‘Big Love,’ about a Viagra-popping man with three wives” seems to be helping.
Team McCain no doubt reads of the issue with muted glee. And some may tune-in to HBO on occasion. Meanwhile, McCain attorneys, in their role as counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, argue, on the same Tuesday, that issues are being too widely discussed by 527 organizations. It would seem “527 organizations [are] playing an increasingly important—and corrupting—role in politics,” says the Campaign Legal Center, though it says nothing of the issues discussed by the Post, HBO or the Times. Team McCain sees the trouble that national events and the discussion of issues may cause for Romney, and dreams of blue skies and smooth sailing from here to the nomination. But can it see equally, and past the nomination, that 2008 is the 40-year anniversary of the My Lai Massacre and the Paris Peace Talks; a wonderful time for an insulated media to discuss the issue of Viet Nam, and to ask whether that war’s veterans, despite (or because of) their heroism, are up to the job of executive responsibility in a 21st century?
While Tuesday’s Times calls McCain conservative at page A20, it reserves page A1 to report in detail on the Hillary campaign of 2006. Anne E. Kornfelt and Jeff Zeleny "Clinton Won Easily, but Bankroll Shows the Toll," New York Times, A1 Nov. 21, 2006. The paper asks “Is $30 million too much to spend on a cakewalk campaign?” but is otherwise devoid of issues. It reads like society-page coverage of a royal wedding; the stuff of TomKat, Bennifer, the late John and Carolyn, Princess Diana or Eva Peron. Readers have seen subjects treated this way before. They know what the treatment is meant to convey, just as Reagan communications director Michael Deaver knew that broadcasters might say what they wanted of Reagan so long as the B roll was good. The photos and captions in the Times piece tell the story; indicate our status relative to that of the subject; and intimate her inevitability: $764,450 Catering; $27,261 Valet parking; $161,751 Chartered flights; $13,169 Flowers; $51,313 Photography.” Not all stories can be of substantive weight. But Tuesday’s story had no issues; no discussion of healthcare, billing records, ethics, or cattle futures (it didn’t even call Clinton a “Dueling Liberal.”) There is no reason to believe the establishment media thoroughly will cover such “old news” in 2008, though many 18-24 year-old voters will not have heard it, and no reason to believe that clean-campaign McCain will be permitted by the Post and Times editorialists to stoop to address it – or permitted to let his party stoop to address it with independent expenditures. (Remember: McCain calling on his party to end an advertising expenditure is not a coordinated expenditure under campaign finance law). The papers will ask him to stop such discussion in the name of civility and positive campaigning. If his campaign fails to do so, he will be labeled a hypocrite. If he claims an inability to stop others it will be asked how McCain can lead a nation if he cannot lead his party.
And if the Campaign Legal Center has its way, there will be no 527 able to tell Americans of the next Whitehouse occupant or what may await them in a new Clinton Presidency. Between McCain and Clinton, Hillary is the candidate more exhibiting the characteristics of incumbency. It is enough to make one wonder whether McCain’s lawyers even have read the first line of Meredith’s McGehee’s Tuesday post at the Campaign Legal Center, which says that “Harry Reid the new Senate Majority Leader has [now] expressed interest in reigning in 527 groups.” The Democrats are now where the Times and Post have been for years. Is Team McCain asking themselves why?
In embracing “reform” McCain furthered trade-cartel legislation for a grateful media apparatus annoyed with corporate, party, and Internet interlopers. And like many good politicians McCain has danced assiduously with the one who “brung him”: media outlets that lionized him for advocating speech reforms that exempt them, and for battering George W. Bush in the early goings of the 2000 Presidential contest. But few wonder which party those outlets will align with come general election day. And there is nothing to indicate they’ll not use the increasing exclusivity that reform gives them to the detriment of its champion. Win or lose, McCain will likely learn, far too late, that the Gray Lady with whom he dances is not a friend, but a femme fatale.