How biased is the nation's press corps? In the window since Labor Day, the period when presidential campaigns start to get deadly serious, the national media has literally inserted itself into the race. In a series of shabbily conceived stories, which have thrown George W. Bush's campaign temporarily off stride, the national media has acted as little more than a spin machine for the Democratic Party. And that's not even counting the Oprah-Conan-Letterman caucus.
In the past week, the media has reported Bush's "major league asshole" remark about a New York Times reporter, labeled him a debate fumbler (he's afraid to show up, the articles have implied) and tried to brand him with a political scarlet letter by depicting him as a mean-spirited, hypocritical and negative campaigner for the now-infamous "rats" ad. All of these events, if you believe the media, spell serious trouble for the Bush campaign.
It's certainly true that these news stories have put Bush on the defensive, making it difficult for his team to get its message out -- and that's precisely what the Gore spin machine desires to achieve.
But a more responsible and professional press might have reported the same stories differently. Here are a few questions you ought to ask yourself:
1. Should the New York Times have assigned Adam Clymer, a left-wing journalist who is comfortable writing in the ideological pages of the Nation and the Progressive, to cover the Bush campaign? Or is the Times, which still can field first-rate reporters like Kitty Seelye and Alison Mitchell, in danger now of whoring itself to a partisan agenda?
2. Did Al Gore misspeak when he claimed that he "will debate George Bush anyplace, any time," or will he just say anything to become the next president?
3. Why did the New York Times wait two full weeks after Fox News broke the news about the "rats" ad before covering it? Was it because the story really didn't deserve significant coverage at all, or is a fortnight the amount of time it took the Democratic National Committee to badger its friends at the Times into running it?
Lost amid the critical coverage of Bush was what would become a major political scandal if Gore didn't have his finger wrapped around the media. Imagine for a moment if four government prosecutors recommended, after reviewing the facts, that Bush be investigated for lying to government officials on more than one occasion when questioned about illegal campaign contributions. Then imagine that a memo had surfaced indicating a possible $100,000 campaign contribution as a quid pro quo for an executive veto of legislation affecting the donor. (Most would call it a bribe.) It would be a major story. Yet that's exactly the story that broke last week about the Clinton-Gore administration to big media ho-hum. In a less-biased media universe, this story would have buried all the others.
Now for the political miracle that the press reported as a political stumble. To appreciate it, one must first consider the playing field in this election year.
Conventional wisdom holds that if the economy is good, the party in power will almost always hold onto it. We are in the midst of the largest economic boom in American history. (Liberals note: It began in 1983.) We have full employment. We have a $250 billion surplus, which is very sweet music indeed to Democratic ears. One of Ronald Reagan's unheralded insights, for example, was that if he let the Democratic Congress spill enough red ink, eventually the very size of the deficit would become an obstacle to the Democrats' spending mania. It did.
Democrats live on government handouts. In addition to being a way of life for the party, it's also the way of securing power. Therefore, there is really nothing in the political landscape more important to the Democrats' election prospects than the emergence of a tax surplus. What this means in this election year is that the Republicans' chief argument -- that the Democrats are the tax-and-spend party -- has been eliminated from the debate. This year Democrats can promise to spend and spend, and they don't have to add a single new tax to do so. They can even promise voters a tax cut. (Well, not exactly. Democrats are so averse to giving the people back their money that what they have proposed as a "targeted tax cut" is more like another government program for which certain handpicked constituencies, like single mothers who need child care and vote overwhelming Democratic, can get a discount.)
And then there's national defense. The Rooseveltian lock that the Democrats held on the White House was broken only after the internal security scandals of the early Cold War caused voters to worry that Democrats could not be trusted with national defense (a worry dramatically increased by the McGovernization of the party). Since 1952, no Republican has been elected to the White House at times when national defense was not a top voter concern. But the Cold War is over; national defense is now completely off the radar. A New York Times poll last week showed that while two-thirds of voters support a missile defense system (something the Clinton-Gore team has dragged its feet on for eight years), almost three-quarters (72 percent) do not realize that the United States does not at present have a missile defense system.
The most recent bipartisan Battleground poll reflects all the difficulties that Republicans face in the current election, and then some. As of Sept. 14, President Clinton held a 60 percent approval rating. Another telling statistic reported in the poll is that 49 percent of Americans believe the country is on the right track -- and are therefore more likely to vote for continuity than change. As the incumbent vice president, Gore appears to have successfully distanced himself from Clinton's moral shortcomings and scandals, and is therefore able to capitalize on this optimistic mood. Moreover, Gore's personality problem also appears to have been solved, with his favorability/unfavorability rating now at 55 percent to 34 percent, the highest it has been in the campaign.
In sum, the Republicans have had their core issues taken away. The Democrats can promise the moon. The media shamelessly roots for Gore, and the public likes him. The economy is booming and the country is happy with the status quo. Yet, as of Sept. 13, the race for the presidency was in a dead heat.
And the fact that Bush was in a dead heat with Gore one week into the post-Labor Day stretch is one of the miracles of modern presidential campaign history.
This is the story from which the media has averted its eyes. It is the story of the reshaping of the Republican Party into a competitive political force by Bush, Karl Rove and their team in Austin. This achievement will affect American politics far into the future no matter what the outcome in November. But it is the outcome in November that it may affect the most.