March 22, 2000
When the presidential campaign got underway this year, the media
were eagerly anticipating the prospect of a moderate on each ticket to
challenge the two parties' anointed nominees. The contest might even
maintain the high ratings of last year's Monica soap opera.
In the Democratic Party, Bill Bradley, the basketball star, was
expected to show so much more joie de vivre than Al Gore, who spoke
slowly as though English were his second language. But Bradley turned
out to be even more wooden and boring than Gore.
Bradley rejected the media's invitation to run as a moderate and
instead positioned himself to the left of Gore. Bradley is thin, but
he's not skinny enough for that task because there is precious little
space to the left of Gore.
Bradley spent an improbable couple of weeks in a dead-end debate
about whether he or Gore is more reliably pro-abortion. Since Gore is
pro-abortion enough to get the endorsement of the pro-abortion
lobbyists, the nuances were irrelevant.
Being a Rhodes scholar didn't help Bradley, either. Remembering
Bill Clinton, this is no time to bring on another Rhodes scholar.
The Bush-McCain battle in the Republican Party was much more
interesting. George W. Bush's $50 million head start was matched by an
estimated $100 million in free media showered on John McCain.
McCain vs. Bush became a battle of the titans. The corporate
establishment joined with the Republican Party establishment to endorse
Bush, and the media establishment lined up behind McCain.
It's not hard to figure out why the media jumped on the McCain
bandwagon. It's not just because he was so accessible to reporters on
his Straight Talk bus.
McCain's campaign finance reform would give the media total
control over U.S. elections. His plan would prohibit donations from
non-media corporations and their executives, but allow unlimited
endorsements and coverage by media corporations.
From the media's perspective, this was a win-win candidacy.
McCain's ties to the media were also reinforced by his chairmanship of
the Senate Commerce Committee, where he has oversight over the
After McCain's media campaign was well under way, it picked up a
life of its own. He acquired a following of people attracted by the
image of a macho man as a leader with overtones of heroism.
McCain also attracted an anti-establishment constituency of those
who think that corporate money has given us one-party government and
who resent the way the same corporate CEOs and party bigwigs, who gave
us the failed campaigns of Bush the father and Bob Dole, had greased
the process for Bush the son.
Amid all the talk about McCain's ability to reach out to new
voters, one clear message emerged. The impressive primary victories by
a man who calls himself pro-life and has a pro-life voting record
conclusively prove that a candidate does not have to be pro-choice to
attract moderates and independents to vote Republican.
Things were going well for the insurgent McCain, but on the way to
his upset victory, he made a major miscalculation. Perhaps it was on
the advice of Warren Rudman, perhaps out of arrogance, perhaps because
of anger at his defeat in South Carolina.
McCain thought he could do what the Rockefeller wing of the
Republican Party has been itching to do ever since the glory days of
Ronald Reagan's victories, namely, cut the clout of the so-called
religious right. He knew he would have media support for a frontal
While piously pontificating against negative ads, he launched a
phone campaign just before the Michigan primary accusing George Bush of
being in the pocket of anti-Catholic fundamentalists. The media let
him get by with falsely denying responsibility for the calls until the
Michigan polls closed, after which he admitted paying for them.
Then McCain went to Virginia Beach and made a mean-spirited attack
on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The attack on Falwell was
peculiar, since Falwell has never criticized McCain and his political
organization, the Moral Majority, was disbanded over ten years ago.
McCain then compounded his error by implying that Robertson and
Falwell are "evil," and made it worse still by saying he was "joking."
This played well with the media and the Warren Rudman wing of the
Republican Party who want to drive the Christian conservatives back
into their pews. But they are far too numerous and dynamic to be
exorcised, and the majority of Republicans found McCain's arrogant
McCain had developed his following based on image not issues, and
when his image of masculinity and heroism morphed into bitter, angry
victimology, he didn't have any issues to sustain his momentum. Only
about one percent of voters care about campaign finance reform.
Where will the McCain voters now go? The one theme most of them
share is anti-establishmentarianism, but it will be difficult for
either Bush or Gore to harness that constituency.