John McCain's Iowa victory -- and his hundred years' war
In a guide to "post-caucus spin" posted Wednesday night, NBC News political director Chuck Todd wrote:
Nobody plays the "national press expectations game" better than [John] McCain. ... Anything north of 15 percent Thursday will get played up big by the media and lead to front-runner coverage once he sets foot in New Hampshire again. The only bad news for McCain right now is that there is an expectation that he could finish third. If he doesn't, then maybe many in the media will question whether the comeback is real or Memorex, circa 2000.
As if to prove his colleague correct, MSNBC's Chris Matthews predicted that same evening that McCain would win at least 18 percent of the vote in the Iowa Republican caucuses. Winning such a "high percentage" of the vote would make McCain "the big hero tomorrow night," according to Matthews. The next morning, Matthews repeated his prediction.
Todd also wrote that if Hillary Clinton found herself in a three-way tie, her campaign would have to "make sure the media doesn't somehow turn the tie into a '60-plus percent of Democrats rejected her' spin. ... [T]hey do have to worry about a certain segment of the press interpreting Clinton as the incumbent being rejected by majority margins." Matthews came through again, before the voting had even begun, and kept it up throughout MSNBC's caucus-night coverage.
You might wonder how Matthews could simultaneously argue that John McCain would be a big winner if he got 18 percent of the vote and that if Hillary Clinton finished with more than 30 percent, it would mean she had been "rejected here in Iowa by two-thirds of the Democratic Party." Well, it might have a little something to do with the fact that Matthews thinks McCain "deserves to be president," and has reportedly said of Hillary Clinton "I hate her. I hate her. All that she stands for."
But back to McCain, and to Matthews. On Wednesday's Hardball, McCain reverentially announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, there's something real here, courage to endure repeated disappointment, unexpected failure, shattering defeat. That's what people respected in Britain's Winston Churchill, and it's so much who John McCain is this second and final run for the presidency. There's something genuine here, something selfless, even quietly grand in his campaign."
Later during that same show, Matthews suggested that if McCain "pulls a third and Huckabee wins," McCain would be on the way to the nomination, leading to this extraordinary exchange with Chuck Todd:
TODD: Yes, you know, I hate to be existential here, but you know, the media -- and I say this as if I'm not a member of it, but the media does seem to be ready to will John McCain out of Iowa. It is a stunning thing. And if I were Mitt Romney or Giuliani or Mike Huckabee, I'd be, like, Wait a minute, you're going to take a third place finish and somehow use that to catapult this guy, free media --
TODD: -- and get him the victory in New Hampshire? But frankly, that is what's going to happen. There's a reason John McCain --
TODD: -- is sort of the king of sort of working the media.
SIMON: He's doing a great job of it and --
MATTHEWS: Gary Hart back in 1984 got 17 percent in Iowa. Walter Mondale got 49 percent. Guess who won? Gary Hart won. The media declared him the winner and he won in New Hampshire. You are so dead right, if it happens.
TODD: I know it happens.
"If it happens," Matthews said, ignoring the fact that he was doing all he could to make it happen.
Not that Matthews was alone. Later -- again, still on the same show -- he had this exchange with National Journal's Linda Douglass:
MATTHEWS: Linda, I have a sense that the big fear on the [Mitt] Romney side and the other side, [Mike] Huckabee, is that John McCain may escape from Iowa with a strong third place, meaning 15 points or so. He will then slingshot himself into New Hampshire, where he'll probably win at that point. These are interesting things the way the press counts these things. I remember Gary Hart getting 17 points back in '84, compared to Walter Mondale's 49, and being declared the victor coming out of Iowa.
DOUGLASS: It's always that way. It's always about expectations. I think you're totally right about McCain. The big story could be if McCain comes in a respectable third not having campaigned at all in Iowa, not having run a single ad, that will slingshot him potentially into New Hampshire, where he has spent money and time and they like him there. And he's tied for first in the poll in New Hampshire.
Once again, Matthews pretended to be fascinated by the whole process, musing, "These are interesting things the way the press counts these things," as though he wasn't leading the effort.
Notice, however, that he was apparently having second thoughts about McCain's performance. Earlier, he had predicted the Arizona senator would win 18 percent of the vote. But apparently, winning the votes of nearly one in every five Republicans seemed too high a hurdle, because Matthews was now saying that McCain needed to win only 15 percent in order to finish "strong" and "slingshot" himself on to the nomination.
As it turns out, McCain didn't come in third with 18 percent (or 15 percent), so his fans in the media weren't compelled to rely on such transparent spin. They responded exuberantly:
- The Politico's Mike Allen said on Fox News: "Tonight is a fantastic night for John McCain. ... He's one of the biggest winners of the night. He's now in a fantastic position. Except for Barack Obama, there's almost no one you'd rather be tonight than John McCain."
- CNN's John King declared that "John McCain has the energy on the Republican side right now."
- On MSNBC, Tom Brokaw insisted that "if you're handicapping all this, this is very good news for John McCain."
- The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes on Fox News: "Does this help John McCain? It helps John McCain enormously. ... [T]his could not have been conceivably a better result for McCain, I don't think. ... [T]his is a perfect result for McCain."
If McCain didn't finish third -- didn't come in with only 15 or 18 percent -- how well did he do? It must have been a heck of a performance to be a "perfect" result that puts him in "fantastic position" and delivered "very good news" -- so good that "there's almost no one you'd rather be tonight than John McCain." So good that there "could not have been conceivably a better result."
With 99.6 percent of the precincts reporting, John McCain finished in fourth place, having persuaded a mere 13 percent of Republican caucus voters to support him.
Fourth place. Thirteen percent of the vote. He failed to meet even the low target of a 15-to-18 point, third-place finish that the media set for a McCain victory. And yet journalists spun it as a "perfect result for McCain" anyway.
In case you're wondering, no candidate, Democrat or Republican, has ever won his or her party's nomination after finishing fourth in a contested Iowa caucus, or after winning as little as 13 percent of the vote. Yet this is "very good news for John McCain," according to some of the nation's most powerful journalists, ignoring the fact that the only way in which this is good news for McCain is that they keep saying it is good news for McCain.
Usually, candidates and their campaigns have to do their own post-defeat spin. Not John McCain; knowing his admirers in the media would do the job for him, he was free to state the obvious: "I consider it to be Gov. Huckabee's victory."
It's easy to engage in a little bit of "straight talk" when you know you have the media to take care of the spin for you.
So committed were reporters to the idea of McCain winning the Iowa caucuses (no matter how many people beat him) that NBC's Tim Russert went so far as to book him on this Sunday's Meet the Press. And so, following a caucus in which he finished fourth with a mere 13 percent of the vote, John McCain gets a shot at wooing New Hampshire voters from the highest-profile political television show in America. This shouldn't come as a surprise, though; Russert hosts McCain so often the senator is practically a guest host of Meet the Press. McCain's upcoming appearance is reminiscent of the first edition of Meet the Press after Democrats captured control of the House and Senate in the November 2006 elections, largely due to public opposition to the Iraq war. Russert's guests that day were McCain and Joe Lieberman (who is campaigning for McCain this year) -- two supporters of the Iraq war, neither of them elected as a Democrat.
Media coverage of McCain's Iowa "victory" is, obviously, unmitigated nonsense. Not only did McCain come in fourth, with only 13 percent of the vote, he failed to meet the (low) expectations the media set for him. But this is John McCain; the worse his performance, the more over-the-top the media's cheerleading for him becomes. Winning 15 percent of the vote would have been "strong," the media told us. When McCain actually finished with 13 percent, we were told it was a "perfect" result. Had McCain come in dead last, with only four votes, Fred Barnes would probably have told us McCain was inaugurated three days ago and has already declared war on Iran. (Or, as Matt Yglesias put it: "I think Kansas will beat Virginia Tech, but the real winner of the Orange Bowl will be John McCain.")
But it is nonsense not only because the claims are farcical, and not only because they constitute a blatant example of journalists spinning on John McCain's behalf. It is nonsense because none of it tells voters anything useful. At a time when many Americans are trying to decide whom to vote for, the media are focusing even more than usual on how the candidates are doing in the horse race rather than what they'll do about health care, about who has energy rather than who has an energy policy.
Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Alterman wrote about this yesterday:
I remember during the first election that I traveled with the press, I was with Al Gore in Nashville on Super Tuesday in 1988. When Gore held a press conference the next day, I was determined to ask him a question about the MX missile. When I did, the rest of the room looked at me as if I had rabies. They had done their "issues" six months ago, and now the only reason that issues mattered was to what degree they accorded political advantage. Ditto today, but even more so. I won't name names because the disease is so prevalent, it would be unfair.
It isn't like there's nothing substantive for reporters to talk about, or to ask candidates about. For example, rather than making fools of themselves gushing about John McCain's "perfect" 13 percent performance, they could tell their viewers and readers that just yesterday, he said it would be "fine with me" if American troops stayed in Iraq for a hundred years. Lest anyone wonder if McCain had misspoken, he later insisted that a "thousand years" or a "million years" would be fine, too.
Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn posted a report about McCain's comments on the magazine's Web page yesterday afternoon and later added video.
Nearly a day later, there has barely been any media coverage of McCain's willingness to keep the military in Iraq forever -- even after Americans Against Escalation in Iraq and VoteVets' Jon Soltz blasted McCain.
Countless news outlets, however, have mindlessly quoted McCain's criticism of his opponents for running negative campaigns. Why "mindlessly"? Because they have reported McCain's pious denunciation of negative campaigns without mentioning that McCain himself had run negative ads against his opponents. Indeed, even as the media were helping McCain portray himself as above the negative campaigning of his rivals, his campaign unveiled a new ad attacking Mitt Romney. At least one MSNBC news report today even included a clip of one of McCain's negative ads -- without noting that just last night, McCain was chastising his opponents for negative campaigning.
The Iowa caucus results weren't really "perfect" for McCain -- but the media's coverage of him has been.