Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why McCain's "maverick" label no longer applies

At an event last month in New York City, I got into an interesting conversation with some notable journalists. The topic was John McCain. More specifically, the topic was why so many notable journalists give such a free ride to John McCain. And, of course, it only took about 30 seconds before we came up with a consensus answer:

McCain is at ease around journalists, he gives them access, he’s not afraid to think out loud – all of which is so unlike so many contemporary pols, who treat the press like dirt unless they are armed in advance with robotic talking points that are bound to make them look good.

It’s a simple formula, really: Give access, get good press….And it continues to pay off. Even though ’08 GOP candidate McCain continues to curry favor with the religious conservatives leaders whom he once condemned as “the forces of evil,” he is still widely described as a “maverick.” Even though McCain was ranked in 2005 (by as the third most conservative U.S. senator, he is he is still widely described as “independent.” Even though he has flip-flopped lately on a number of issues (he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, but voted to extend them last winter), he is still widely described as a “straight-talker.”

One of his effective selling points, during his failed ’00 presidential bid, was his image as a boat rocker, an insurgent in full cry against the Republican establishment. But now, today, we have further factual evidence that the old labels should not apply. Reports indicate that he has hired, as his 2008 campaign manager, one of the most notorious hardball specialists of the Republican establishment.

Here’s the abridged book on Terry Nelson:

1. Two months ago, Nelson was one of the key GOP consultants who produced the now-famous Tennessee TV ad attacking Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford. Ford is black; at the ad’s conclusion, a white actress playing a semi-naked bimbo winked at the camera and said, “Harold. Call me.” The heat over this ad was so intense that Wal-Mart, another of Nelson’s clients, subsequently decided it would be “the right course of action” not to work with him anymore.

2. Three months ago, when the Republicans decided they could not retain the House or Senate unless they dug up personal information against their opponents and launched a massive negative ad blitz, they hired Nelson to run the effort.

3. Last year, when Nelson launched a new firm, Crosslink Strategy Group, he enlisted the aid of Chris LaCivita, one of the ’04 principals behind the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (whose ads were condemned at the time by John McCain).

4. Nelson’s name surfaces repeatedly in the Texas indictment against former House Republican leader Tom DeLay. Nelson has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, but the indictment indicates that Nelson, in his capacity as a national Republican official back in September 2002, played a key role in helping DeLay and his money men allegedly evade a Texas law that bans the use of corporate money in Texas campaigns.

5. Nelson’s name also surfaces in the New Hampshire “phone-jamming” case. Late last year, James Tobin, the national GOP’s New England political director, was convicted and jailed for his criminal role in a successful effort to jam Democratic party phone lines and thus impede Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts on election day 2002. Nelson, as the GOP political director, was Tobin’s superior. (A New Hampshire GOP official was also convicted and jailed.) At trial, Nelson was on the prosecutor’s witness list, but he was never called.

McCain first hired Nelson as an advisor last winter, apparently unaware of Nelson’s track record. He said at the time he was unaware, anyway. While appearing last March on a Seattle radio show, a caller quizzed McCain about Nelson, citing some of the examples listed above. McCain’s first response: “None of those charges are true.” Then moments later: “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Which to me prompts the question, how can he know the charges are untrue, if he’d never heard them before? In any event, assuming that he has learned more about Nelson in the subsequent months, he is clearly not concerned. Today, he said: “I am honored to have Terry’s leadership.”

I’ll stress again: Nelson has not been criminally charged with anything. But, in view of his hardball track record, his presence at McCain’s side is sufficient proof that the “maverick” label no longer applies.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see why the McCain camp has taken Nelson aboard. McCain wants to win; Nelson plays to win. And, to paraphrase a line from the film Apocalypse Now, charging a politico with shady dealings is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.