ST. PAUL — Listening to Republicans here this week, it's hard to know whether John McCainis running against Barack Obama or this evil creature they like to call the "East Coast liberal media elite." The problem wasn't the message; it's a time-honored strategy for Republicans to accuse the media of liberal bias, and the media usually relents. The problem, in many cases this week, was the messengers.
We've come a long way since the 2004 convention, when McCain was feted in a luncheon at tony 21 Restaurant in New York and celebrated that evening at a dinner with media bigs and all three network anchors. Just six months ago, McCain stood before many of those friends at a hastily arranged press conference in Toledo, Ohio and swatted away a front-page New York Times report suggesting he'd had an affair with a female lobbyist. With a wave of his hand, McCain turned the press against the Times and its "gutter" journalism. He was still, at that time, uniquely capable of doing that.
Indeed, this probably isn't the campaign that McCain, or his media friends, expected him to run. But surely he knew that his decision to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate, and its timing, would set the stage for a classic battle between conservatives and two of their favorite punching bags: liberals and the media who love them.
But it's bigger than that. By waiting to unveil his VP choice until last Friday, three days before his convention got underway, McCain drove the media into a predictable frenzy to scare up details about this largely unknown, would-be president. The media gamely took the bait, working themselves into a virtual lather over tidbits of questionable relevance, all of which set them up as a foil that Republicans then could use to stage the latest battle of the country's culture wars.
Video: Wallace: The media should be ashamed The strategy has been building for awhile. Last week, McCain showed his cranky side in a Time magazine interview, and his campaign scrapped an interview with CNN's Larry King after anchor Campbell Brown fired off perfectly reasonable questions about Palin at spokesman Tucker Bounds.
With not-so-faint echoes of 1992, attacks against liberals and the media were perhaps the most dominant theme we've heard this week at the Xcel Energy Center.
"I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment," Palin scoffed smugly Wednesday night, sparking thundering applause from GOP delegates. "And I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion -- I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."
Video: Palin needs to talk to the media The hockey mom took the gloves off, accepting her nomination as the GOP's "pit bull with lipstick" by unleashing a series of ankle-biting attacks against the press and Obama. (Styrofoam columns and fake presidential seals? Really, Governor?)
But at least Palin warmed up the crowd before she stuck her fork into her targets. And at least, as far as we know, her remarks come from a place of authenticity. This is how Mitt Romney opened his remarks: "For decades, the Washington sun has been rising in the east. Washington has been looking to the eastern elites, to the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, and to the broadcasters from the coast," said the multimillionaire ex-governor of Massachusetts.
Even more curiously, McCain's camp tasked Rudy Giuliani to help paint Obama as the urban elite. "I'm sorry that Barack Obama feels that [Palin's] home town isn't cosmopolitan enough," said the liberal former mayor of the country's largest, and most cosmopolitan, city. "I'm sorry that it's not flashy enough. Maybe they cling to religion there."
Fred Thompson, the Hollywood actor-turned-Washington lobbyist, got the ball rolling Tuesday evening with an offense critique of the media elite disguised as a defense of Palin.
"She is from a small town, with small-town values, but that's not good enough for those folks who are attacking her and her family. Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Sunday talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit," said Thompson, who presumably wasn't referring to himself or McCain, two "Meet the Press" mainstays.
Maybe the week's most entertaining line came, predictably, from Mike Huckabee, who charged that the media's reporting of Palin this week "has proven tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert." It's unclear what exactly he meant, or how familiar Huckabee is with Madonna concerts or costume changes. But hey, at least he made us laugh.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.