Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ink Blots

The reaction to the McCain/Iseman story has been a lot more telling than the story itself, and you can see that the pundits and bloggers are putting their own spin or agenda behind the interpretation. It’s this week’s Rorschach test of the campaign.

They’ve come down roughly in three camps. First there’s the kill-the-messenger group, mostly on the right, who claim this is just another smear job by the New York Times; that it is old news from the 2000 campaign, and there’s not much to the story in the first place. Then there’s the group that immediately jumped to the conclusion that Sen. McCain was having a sexual relationship with Ms. Iseman; after all, what else could the term “inappropriate relationship” mean, and they’re jumping to the conclusion that we’re on the verge of a Bill-and-Monica story again. And then there are those who are watching those first two groups and waiting to see if the story itself has legs or whether the story about the story is what will give it more than a one-day news cycle lifespan.

As for the story itself, it is long on Mr. McCain’s history as a congressman and senator and his dealings with lobbyists and short on accusations of actual wrong-doing. It is more about the perception of Mr. McCain’s relationships within his own campaign and how they could be used against him in the campaign. As Josh Marshall notes at TPM, it seems that the story has been lawyered down to the point that whatever raw meat there was that could have created an implication of a romantic relationship between the senator and the lobbyist has been taken out. (This is where the defenders of the senator jump in and say the story is too thin to warrant any attention and slam the New York Times for launching a smear job. A bit of a vicious cycle there.)

According to several reporters, including Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, this story has been floating around for several months and that Sen. McCain hired Robert Bennett, the lawyer who defended President Clinton, to intervene with the Times to kill the story in December, before the Iowa caucuses. According to other reports, the reason the Times came out with it now was because another outlet, The New Republic, was planning to put out its own story… about the Times not writing the story.

It will be interesting to see how the anti-McCain wingnuts in the conservative camp take to this story. On the one hand, they will see it as an affirmation that Sen. McCain is a sanctimonious hypocrite about campaign finance and lobbying reform with the titillation of a possible sex scandal thrown in, and that gives them even more reasons to hate him. But there’s also the natural instinct to come to the defense of a Republican being attacked by the New York Times, that bastion of elitist left-wing liberalism. This may provide a bipolar moment for folks like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. My guess is that they will torture it enough that they can come down on both sides and still claim they were right about John McCain and the liberal media all along.

The McCain campaign issued a blustery non-denial denial, accusing the Times of launching a “hit-and-run smear campaign” and claiming that “Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics.” The next couple of days will prove whether or not that’s true.