Last Wednesday evening, The New York Times posted a now infamous story on its website, claiming that John McCain may have done favors for a lobbyist with whom he was romantically involved. The article, built on an unstable framework of unnamed sources, quickly became the top political headline. But rather than focus on the potential damage the story could cause to McCain's already shaky chances in November, the narrative settled on the Times' story itself, questioning the veracity of its sources and the motives of its publication.
The same conservative talk show hosts who had shown palpable disdain for the Senator were suddenly rallying to his defense, accusing The New York Times of a "hit job," a willful attempt to influence the outcome of the election. Instantly, the mainstream punditry reacted in unison, proclaiming that the Times story had helped McCain to unify his base in ways that he, himself, could never have accomplished. On the other side of the unfolding events, McCain had come out on top, they argued.
In the short term, they may be right. McCain has, after all, raised more money off the incident than at any other time in the election cycle. But there is little evidence, if any, that the long term impact of these events will be beneficial for McCain, or that radio hosts who love to disparage him will continue to stand by his side.
It is impossible to imagine that before publishing the piece, Bill Keller, editor of the Times, didn't anticipate what would come next. Having printed a top-of-the-fold, front page story insinuating adultery and corruption, and having failed to provide documentary evidence or the names of sources, Bill Keller must have expected a backlash. Is it really possible that Keller would gear up for a fight he couldn't win? It seems far more likely that though he couldn't offer the information publicly, there was confirmable off-the-record information that had guided his willingness to ultimately go to print. There is now great incentive for The New York Times to continue their investigation, with hope of gathering evidence that will eventually vindicate their decision. There is also incentive for reporters everywhere, who can smell the potential, an earth-shaking story, there for the taking. If the information that The New York Times published is right, the story will not stay hidden. And already, McCain's air tight explanation is starting to leak.
In a full-throated defense Thursday morning, Senator McCain adamantly denied a romantic relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, and denied having met with anyone at Paxson Communications, the company she represented. But, as Newsweek uncovered, in a 2002 deposition, McCain admitted the opposite, that he had spoken with Lowell Paxson himself. Shortly after the meeting, McCain sent two letters to the FCC urging a decision in an issue involving the company, all while Paxson executives were contributing $20,000 to McCain's campaign. When asked about his dealings with Paxson, the Senator who has staked his entire mythology on a battle against lobbyists, acknowledged that "the taint affects all of us." Indeed.
McCain's footing with the conservative chattering class is also far from steady. In the wake of a half-hearted defense of McCain by Limbaugh and others, the bulk of the punditry class assumed that McCain's biggest enemies on the right would line up behind him. That notion has been widely accepted, but seems misguided. Even when defending McCain, Limbaugh criticized him for cavorting with liberals, exclaiming his hope that McCain had learned his lesson. All that was uncovered about their rocky relationship is that, generally speaking, Rush Limbaugh likes John McCain more than he likes The New York Times.
But even if John McCain were able to muster a peace with the conservative elite, he still faces an enormous challenge with the real conservatives he needs: evangelicals. By wide margins, they are the largest piece of the Republican base and have been credited with helping ensure eight years of President Bush. That they will mobilize to the polls in November is far from assured, however. In the 2006 election, one in four white evangelicals voted for Democrats, with corruption as their top concern. The New York Times story has the potential to echo through this most crucial part of McCain's winning coalition, with evidence of government corruption and a rejection of "family values." If the narrative continues, and it very likely will, McCain might find consolidating his base to be impossible.
The scrutiny will continue, as will the story, and the damage will be gradual, but steady. John McCain's entire appeal is his straight shooter persona, a man with integrity who stands up for clean government, even if at odds with his party. But with lobbyists running his campaign, lobbyists as, at the very least, his good friends, and with evidence mounting that he used his chairmanship to do favors for the very people he has publicly admonished, McCain is not as he appeared.
The footprint this story will have on the election is very real, possibly fatal. Come November, McCain may arrive with neither the right, nor the center - truly, a man alone.
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