John McCain should send a dozen roses and a thank-you note to The New York Times.
There he was, trudging from one primary to the next, racking up underwhelming victories because of his chronic inability to bond with the Republican right...and, lo and behold, The Times comes along today and provides him with a gift-wrapped opportunity to bond with the Republican right.
The Times is the enemy, the paper that conservatives love to hate. The Times has just published a front-page story insinuating that something unseemly (we know not what, exactly) may have occurred nine years ago between McCain and a Washington lobbyist who looks like Michelle Pfeiffer. Therefore, even though conservatives have generally viewed McCain as an enemy, they now have a visceral reason to bond with him.
As the old political adage goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Here's how conservatives feel today about their new friend: Rush Limbaugh, who for weeks has been assailing McCain as a nutty lefty, now declares that poor McCain is being victimized by "the Drive By media," which is "trying to destroy him." Jed Babbin, editor of Human Events, a popular conservative organ, says The Times is trying to smear the presumptive GOP nominee because "they're political activists posing as news people." David Brody, a conservative commentator with a big religious-right readership, points out that, in his circles, "if The New York Times does a 'hit job' on you, then you wear that as a conservative badge of honor."
Many others have leapt to McCain's defense, but the cleverest remark comes from publicist/author Craig Shirley, who says that "Ho Chi Minh was more professional in his dealings with John McCain than The New York Times," a two-fer that puts The Times to the left of a communist, while invoking the candidate's war-hero credentials. (Those creds will be invoked all year, to innoculate McCain against whatever charges may be hurled his way.)
Frankly, why shouldn't McCain spin this episode into gold? The Times story, reportedly in the works for many months, is ideal material for conservative base mobilization - precisely because, with respect to its allegations, it seems lighter than a souffle.
There was some cackling in Democratic circles today about this story - which suggests that McCain's undefined "relationship" with lobbyist Vicki Iseman had once threatened his image as a man of honor - but suffice it to say that if the same story, with the same sourcing and details, had been published about a leading Democratic contender, those same cacklers would be going ballistic right now.
The story says that, back in 1999, some McCain aides (unnamed) were "convinced the relationship had become romantic" (but it doesn't say what evidence, if any, led them to believe this). At the very least, these aides worried about "the appearance of a close bond" and the possibility of "potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest," since Iseman's telecommunications clients had business with McCain's Senate Commerce Committee.
But there's no evidence in the story that "the appearance" ever led to any actual conflicts of interest - beyond the fact that McCain once sent two letters to the Federal Communications Commission, asking that it rule soon on whether a key Iseman client, Lowell Paxson, should be granted a TV license. McCain himself has mentioned that episode in his memoirs, and it's old news anyway, because the press reported on it nine years ago - noting at the time that while the FCC rebuked McCain for writing those letters, there was no evidence that McCain had tried to muscle the agency into ruling a certain way.
But back to the Times story. It says that the unnamed aides got McCain to admit that he had been "behaving inappropriately" with Iseman, but there's no way to know whether that phrase refers to the behavior of lovers, or the behavior of platonic pals who are plotting to help a lobbying client in violation of the public interest, or the behavior of pals who are simply hanging too often in the gossipy world of politics. Meanwhile, at a press conference this morning, McCain said he had no such confessional conversations with aides.
And that's where we stand at the moment. The latest Fox News poll, which sampled voters earlier this week, finds that roughly one-third of the Republican base is still resistant to McCain. The Times story will help him, especially with Limbaugh and some of his confederates rushing to battle the common enemy. Still, I'd bet that some of the diehard McCain critics on the right - especially Mitt Romney's people - are wishing today that the common enemy had run this story six weeks ago, before the primary season began.
The Democratic finalists debate again tonight, with Hillary Clinton still trying to figure out how she can go negative on Barack Obama in an effective fashion, without somehow alienating the millions of Democrats who have come to believe he walks on water. Whatever happens, rest assured that, when the event ends, Obama will not be chivalrously pulling her chair back this time...unless she's still sitting in it.