The media loves to bemoan the fact that Presidential candidates don’t discuss the issues enough, raise too much money from Wall Street and outside groups, are too bound to their own parties, and will do and say anything for a political edge. However, when a candidate finally came around who was focused on serious issues, who refused private money in the general election, who was a consistent burr in his parties side, and who avoided politically advantageous attacks and positions because he believed they were bad for the country, the media was entrenched firmly on the other side.
Politically, McCain ran a bad campaign. Imagine just for a moment if he would have broken his pledge (like his opponent) to accept public campaign funding. Some more cash for ads in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio certainly would not have hurt. One would think that at least keeping his pledge while his opponent broke his would count for something, but this action was met with a collective shrug by the press. So much for their concern about money influencing politics.
The media currently critiques Mitt Romney for getting dragged too far to the right by the Tea Party. No one would consider John McCain a party hack. From the Bush tax cuts to climate change and immigration, McCain was a constant source of irritation to Conservatives. He was a reliable Senator when it came to forging a compromise across party lines. His opponent? No reputation as an aisle-crosser. One could conclude the media does not care about bi-partisanship either.
Another major complaint we hear about is attack ads. Negative ads have risen to such a level of annoyance that the major media organization have established in-house fact checkers, making themselves the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. John McCain made a clear choice to not attack Barack Obama on the Jeremiah Wright issue. Typically, being a member of a church where the minster throws out the kind of inflammatory comments Wright made regular use of would be prime fodder for campaign ads. Despite the very real potential for political gain, McCain believed the attacks would inflame racial tensions and put the kibosh on any campaign ads raising the Wright issue. McCain, when given the opportunity, also wasted no time defending Obama from assertions by his supporters that he was a Muslim. Meanwhile, Obama was not above running coded ads that highlighted McCain’s age. Unfortunately for McCain, the media also forgot they were supposed to be against negative campaigning.
One of the most under-reported aspects of the campaign was McCain’s decision to support TARP. By the time Congress was voting on the TARP legislation, McCain was slipping badly in the polls. The public did not like TARP and McCain agreed with them. Fighting TARP would have provided him a powerful avenue of attack against his opponent. McCain grudgingly voted for TARP because he believed it was in the best interest of the country – and went on to lose among voters who opposed TARP. Country first? The media missed that one too.
The lesson to be learned from McCain’s campaign is that there is no benefit in media coverage given to (Republican) candidates who play by the media’s rules. Sure McCain ran some negative ads and was probably guilty of some political posturing, but at the end of the campaign he could say he ran on public money, went against his base on TARP at a time he needed an advantage on a critical issue, told the American public exactly what he would do if elected even though it conflicted with public opinion polling, and refused to run politically advantageous ads that he believed were morally wrong. His reward? A defeat that was historic in its size. On Election Day the media even refused to give him a moral victory.