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The Left's Attack on John McCain

By John McIntyre

John McCain has been the darling of the U.S. media since his 2000 slugfest with George W. Bush for the Republican nomination. McCain has studiously courted this media approval, but with the Senator's eyes set on 2008, McCain realizes the coziness with the press is a double-edged sword and an actual impediment to the GOP nomination.

It's amusing to watch the slow, yet inevitable shift in the media's attitude toward their favorite GOP politician these past six years. You always knew that if McCain were to get the Republican nomination in 2008, all of his liberal media pals who had been singing his praises for years as a backdoor way to criticize President Bush and the GOP would find creative ways to suddenly portray McCain as a danger to the Republic.

What's interesting is that this shift is occurring now in 2006 and is, ironically, strengthening McCain's chances for the GOP nomination and actually lessening the chances of Democrats winning back the White House in 2008. It doesn't matter what the state of the Bush Presidency may be two years from now, McCain will beat the overwhelming Democrat favorite, Senator Hillary Clinton, in just about every scenario. It's possible a moderate like former Virginia Governor Mark Warner could beat McCain, but the bottom line is that any Democratic nominee is almost a certain loser to Senator McCain running as the GOP nominee. (A caveat to that rosy scenario for Republicans is a brutal nomination battle where McCain manages to capture the nomination but angers enough conservatives to give Democrats a window for victory)

Fully aware of McCain's stratospheric appeal to independents and swing voters the left has begun its assault on the McCain image. Two weeks ago The New York Times' leading partisan, Paul Krugman, accused McCain of being "The Right's Man." Over the weekend on The Chris Mathews Show one of the panelists, Julio Cesar Ortiz, opined "He's changed since I first met him in 2001 when I got to Arizona. So has the feeling of the people who have voted for him. He is not to be trusted." Translation: when McCain is not beating up on George Bush or taking cheap shots at Republicans he is not to be trusted. Yesterday in the Washington Post E.J. Dionne joined the chorus, lamenting "The New (Less Interesting) John McCain."

What is revealing in the Ortiz comment is the line "since I first met him in 2001." McCain has been such a public figure since his presidential run in 2000 most Americans only know him from his public persona the last six years and his Vietnam POW history almost 40 years ago. His 18-year solidly conservative record in Congress from 1982-2000 was conveniently overlooked by fawning members of the media and is thus not part of the public's current impression of John McCain.

Krugman's salvo against McCain is a harbinger of more to come and is a blatant attempt to begin the process of changing that impression:

The bottom line is that Mr. McCain isn't a moderate; he's a man of the hard right. How far right? A statistical analysis of Mr. McCain's recent voting record, available at www.voteview.com, ranks him as the Senate's third most conservative member. .....

He isn't a moderate. Mr. McCain's policy positions and Senate votes don't just place him at the right end of America's political spectrum; they place him in the right wing of the Republican Party.

McCain and his 2008 strategists couldn't have asked for a better column if they had written it themselves.

The reality is the anti-Republican media have put themselves in a real box with John McCain. They've built up this straight-talking hero since 2000 and are going to find it very difficult to suddenly turn him into a mean, divisive, war-mongering Republican. The earlier they start the process of demonizing McCain in anticipation of the 2008 general election, the more they raise the likelihood that McCain is the eventual nominee, and, in turn, insure a Republican White House through 2012. If liberals have heartburn over the current direction of the federal bench and America's "unilateralist" approach to international affairs, a McCain foreign policy and 1 or 2 more Supreme Court appointments is not a comforting thought.

Frankly, I'm surprised the left is attacking McCain so soon. McCain has many advantages in the fight for the Republican nomination, but his major weakness is he lacks the trust of the party faithful and conservatives. That is a major problem that should not be underestimated. The single best thing the McCain 2008 campaign could do over these next 18 months would be to get the left and the MSM to begin a steady diet of attacking John McCain as too right wing.

It looks like the Krugman, Dionne and Kos crowd are only all too happy to comply. (Maybe they really do like John McCain.)

Expect the McCain demonization to get more nasty and personal as long as McCain remains the front-runner. If he does lock up the nomination, all of the media hand-wringing over how mean the Bush campaign was in South Carolina in 2000 will pale in comparison to the personal attacks that will be launched against McCain by Democrats in 2008. They will begin with whispers that McCain suffered some kind of mental damage when he was a POW in Vietnam and is an unstable, hothead who shouldn't be trusted as Commander in Chief. It will get ugly.

The 2008 primary season is still a long way off, and the animus many conservatives feel towards McCain is real and deep enough he is in no way a lock for the nomination. This week's immigration debate highlights another example of where McCain is out of sync with some in the conservative base who don't look fondly on his immigration bill co-sponsored with Senator Kennedy. At the end of the day McCain's fortunes will probably rise and fall with how much Republicans feel they need him to win. But on the whole McCain has gotten off to a good start this year pre-positioning himself for 2008. If the left continues to ratchet up their attacks it will only help him with the voters he needs to become President.

John McIntyre is the President and co-founder of RealClearPolitics. Email: john@realclearpolitics.com

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