Out of general fondness, the Washington press corps (which is not just a phrase but a definable community of people) has for almost a decade graded John McCain on a curve, especially in the last eighteen months when he’s slipped perceptibly. Now, in response to the bludgeoning and campaign of falsehoods his campaign has unleashed over the last ten days, a number of his longtime admirers in the punditocracy have written articles either claiming that they’d misjudged the man or lamenting his betrayal of his better self.
So my question is, do they and the top editors who with them define the tone of coverage, keep grading McCain on the curve that has so aided him over the last year?
Let’s be frank. On the campaign trail this cycle, McCain frequently forgets key elements of policies, gets countries’ names wrong, forgets things he’s said only hours or days before and is frequently just confused. Any single example is inevitable for someone talking so constantly day in and day out. But the profusion of examples shows a pattern. Some of this is probably a matter of general unseriousness or lack of interest in policy areas like the economy that he doesn’t care much about. But for any other politician who didn’t have the benefit of years of friendship or acquaintance with many of the reporters covering him, this would be a major topic of debate in the campaign. It’s whispered about among reporters. And it’s evidenced in his campaign’s increasing effort to keep him away from the freewheeling conversations with reporters that defined his 2000 candidacy. But it’s verboten as a topic of public discussion.
The other point that again goes almost totally undiscussed is McCain’s two reinventions of himself over the last decade. From a mainline conservative Republican to progressive reform candidate to Bush Republican. The reporters who have been covering him for the last decade know that there is virtually no public policy issue of note which McCain hasn’t made a 180 degree change of position on in the last half dozen years. An ideological shift of that magnitude is far from unprecedented. And such turnabouts or transformations can be a product of searching insights into the changing terrain of American governance. But two such shifts in the course of a decade strongly suggest either instability or opportunism.
Neither of these points are lost on the people in the press most in a position to push key questions to the forefront of the campaign conversation. But for the moment the curve remains firmly in place — even for those reporters now publicly washing their hands of their former affections for the man.