You can tell presidential contenders Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes have gotten a big bounce from their strong showings in the Iowa caucuses. Overnight, reporters went from ignoring them as ego-tripping non-factors to portraying them as the extremist right-wing factors that will ruin George W. Bush's chances with reasonable voters in November.
Can you imagine the internal fury of these two candidates at the media? They hammer away at the issues with substance and passion, day after day, ignoring the who-cares approach of the media mass. Their tireless public speaking and political organizing created surprising results in the Iowa caucuses. Their media reward? Observers like Newsweek's slippery Jonathan Alter suddenly proclaim that Iowa didn't really mean anything anyway.
The early returns from Campaign 2000 are in, and here we go again, with the media relentlessly, ridiculously tilted to the left. The arrival of the Forbes and Keyes campaigns on the right have reporters buzzing like bees in unison: Bush will be forced to pander to the hard right! He'll ruin his "compassionate conservative" image!
This theory is questionable enough (See Ronald Reagan '80 and '84, and George Bush '88), but what makes it ridiculous is the mirror image within the Democratic primaries. Gore and Bradley are fighting over who's more liberal, and yet the press would have us believe the Democrats aren't embracing an ideology that threatens their hold on the independent voters. They can favor abortion on demand, gay marriages, and spending the entire projected surplus on new social programs, and that's somehow "mainstream."
In the reporting leading up to the Iowa caucuses, it was the same old tiring trend: Republicans were tainted by conservatism, but the Democrats were somehow non-ideological. The CBS Evening News alone used the labels "conservative," "right," or "hard right" an incredible 19 times in campaign stories, but did not once issue a liberal label for the Democratic race.
The weekly news magazines carried the same message. Forbes forced Bush right, said Newsweek, and "his moves on money and taxes won't help him in the fall election." Time lamented the fading "compassionate conservative" who they remembered "spanking the House Republicans for their cold hearts and small minds." Only U.S. News columnist Gloria Borger broke from the media pack and noted that moderate Democrats like Sen. John Breaux are exasperated by Gore's collection of liberal constituencies.
Now Bush is portrayed as pinched between the newly discovered Forbes and Keyes on the right and McCain on the left. But that's not quite true. Reporters choke on the notion of putting "McCain" and "left" in the same sentence. So reporters like ABC's Linda Douglass explained that Bush faces "the religious conservatives on the right" (two labels!), and McCain, who "has a lot of support from the independent voters here in New Hampshire." That formula - right wing vs. "independent" - is the mantra of a liberal press that won't concede its - or McCain's - liberalism.
The allegedly objective press is being scooped by The New Republic, whose latest cover gets it right, placing this headline over McCain's picture: "This Man Is Not a Republican." Jonathan Chait theorized: "What began as an isolated heresy on campaign finance is metastasizing into a full-scale assault on the principles that define what it means to be a Republican today." The New Republic wasn't one bit unhappy about that, but at least they're honest.
How else could you explain McCain's fiery (The New Republic calls it "radical") opposition to Bush's proposed tax cut, because of the "growing gap between haves and have-nots"? McCain is moving left on multiple fronts, sounding less and less like a Republican and more and more like a network anchorman. That doesn't hurt him with the networks. The morning after the Iowa caucuses, ABC's "Good Morning America" skipped over interviewing Keyes (with three times as many votes as McCain in Iowa), who had finally scored his first interview with that show on Martin Luther King Day. They skipped over Forbes (six Iowa votes for every one McCain gained, who had one ABC interview last June. McCain may have dismissed the Iowa voters as unimportant, but ABC rewarded the McCain campaign with its 11th interview in the last six months.
The media's campaign coverage so far is another quadrennial parade of wishful thinking. Those candidates who threaten their conventional wisdom, like the notion that tax cuts are something Washington "spends" back to taxpayers, will destroy the Republican Party - they hope. Candidates who believe that America is turning away in revulsion from the heinous reality of abortion on demand can't have a grasp of opinion trends - they think. The only thing that will make this campaign any different than the others is candidates who dare to prove the liberal media are wrong.