The Republicans come home

McCain may fail to meet a few of the US right-wing's tests of ideological purity, but ultimately he is one of their own.

Image Credit:Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
Gulf News

The Republican faithful are not going to abandon John McCain out of mere spite. That, if nothing else, is a safe conclusion after the events of last week.

Since Super Tuesday it would have been easy to conclude that heading towards November McCain's biggest problem was going to be gaining any support at all from the activists who make up the base of the Republican party. They have badgered him mercilessly, claiming he is not conservative enough and darkly hinting that they will stay home on election day rather than vote for a candidate who is less than perfect in his orthodoxy.

But that was, what, two weeks ago? Apparently, things have changed. For those who missed it, the fracas began last Thursday when the New York Times ran a major, front-page article headlined "For McCain, Self-confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk".

The gist of the piece was that after having been caught up in a scandal involving failed thrifts (what Americans call Savings & Loans) early in his political career, McCain remade himself as a model of stern rectitude. This is hardly news. The Keating Five Scandal, as it was known, was a pretty big deal in the late 80s and early 90s. It torpedoed the careers of three senators. McCain survived - barely - and emerged resolving never again to put himself in a position where his ethics might be open to question.

The Times sought to demonstrate, however, that years of holding himself to higher ethical standards than other public officials have left the Arizona senator so convinced that his own motives and behaviour are beyond reproach that he can sometimes forget how his actions might look to others.

The article focused, in particular, on McCain's relationship with a much younger female lobbyist. It did not allege a romantic relationship between the two - only that some of McCain's aides feared others might believe such a relationship existed. The aides allegedly tried to keep the lobbyist away from the senator for fear that people might jump to the wrong conclusions.

The lesson: people completely convinced of their own rectitude tend to think their unimpeachable character is obvious to everyone. This may lead them to do things they probably would not do if they gave the matter a bit more thought.

This is a reasonable, if rather obvious, point. One that could probably have been made in somewhat less than the 3,000 words the Times devoted to it.

Not that one would know this to judge from the reaction the story provoked.

The fact that the story touched on sex, however tangentially, drove out virtually all discussion of ethics. Never mind that ethics, not sex, were what the article was actually about.

Harsh statement

The story line that quickly developed on the political right was that the evil, liberal New York Times had set out to smear McCain. The senator himself released a statement harshly critical of the paper. One of his top advisors, Charlie Black, went on national television to denounce the "smear campaign", adding: "This doesn't meet the journalistic standards of a third-rate tabloid."

This was mild compared to the reaction on talk radio and among conservative bloggers, for whom it was all "proof" that the Times wanted to sabotage McCain's candidacy.

"This is the most despicable act of liberal bias that I have seen in my life!" said Sean Hannity, a combatively right-wing radio and TV host. Since Hannity tends to see liberal perfidy nearly everywhere he looks, that was quite a statement.

It was also quite a turn-around as Hannity has been one of the most prominent right-wing opinion-makers expressing displeasure with the Republican party's choice of McCain as its candidate. Apparently, however, the enemy of a pundit's enemy is his friend - especially when that means defending a fellow Republican against a newspaper that is an object of almost ritualised hatred for the American right.

Really, though, it should not have been all that surprising. McCain may fail to meet a few of the right's tests of ideological purity, but ultimately he is one of their own. He knows it. They know it. There may be a few blinkered ideologues out there who would rather see Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the White House than live with a (from their perspective) not-quite-perfect president, but these people were always going to be a minority. Ultimately, political parties want to win.

The real question ought to be whether Democrats recognised the McCain flap for what it really was: a warning against overconfidence on their part. This election is theirs to lose. That might seem hard to imagine just now, but recall that at this stage of the 2004 campaign John Kerry led George W. Bush by 15 points or more in most national polls. By contrast, both Clinton and Obama are essentially tied with McCain right now.

The race is far from over and, rest assured, the party faithful on both sides are going to do everything they can to win. Whatever they may say to the contrary, no one in Washington is so attached to ideological purity that they will voluntarily march into opposition simply to make a point.

Gordon Robison is a journalist and consultant based in San Francisco. He has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, including assignments in Baghdad for both CNN and Fox News.