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It Takes Two to Tangle

A refresher lesson for some of our brothers and sisters in political journalism: There's this thing called a general election. And, in a general election, candidates representing the two major political parties vie to become president. We're sure that most of our colleagues know about this--or, at least, have heard it mentioned. But we feel obliged to reiterate it, because a broad swath of media has treated this election as if it were a one-man race. Watchdog groups, on both the right and left, have conducted surveys confirming the press's narrow focus on Barack Obama. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, for instance, has found that Obama "significantly featured" in 79 percent of newspaper stories in the two months following his primary victory. Only 54 percent of the stories gave McCain the same treatment.

Strangely, John McCain has joined the chorus griping about this asymmetry. His campaign has carped, "It's pretty obvious that the media has a bizarre fascination with Barack Obama." It is strange for McCain to level this charge, because he's been the prime beneficiary of media inattention. While the press has devoted countless stories to dissecting Obama's basketball game, all the cocktail parties he ever graced in Hyde Park, and every vote he cast as a state senator, large tracts of McCain's record have been untouched by reporters. There have been stunningly few stories revisiting the wild vicissitudes of McCain's recent political career. Less than five years ago, McCain was basically spearheading the Democratic agenda in the Senate--from taxes to government reform--and then, in a flash, he abandoned most of these progressive positions when he decided to run for the Republican nomination in 2008. What does that say about the man? Most voters don't know, because most voters haven't read about this period in the newspaper or heard about it on television. And there are plenty of other parts of the McCain record that reporters have skated past on their way to discovering Obama's long-lost half-brother or some other triviality.

The fault doesn't just lie with the press. As many have noticed, Obama neglected to point out the shortcomings and inconsistencies of his opponent for most of the summer. He may have invested too much in his European tour and not enough in defining the stakes of this election. Apparently, summer is not Barack Obama's best season. Last year, he similarly squandered media hype and public interest as he let Hillary Clinton coast past him unblemished until the last weeks before the Iowa caucus. His strategists seem to believe you best protect your candidate's image--and best damage your opponent--if you sit on your ammunition until the right moment.

It seems they believe that moment has now arrived. During the past week, Obama has begun to hit McCain hard and at his weakest point--his radical economic package, whose basics he grasps only tenuously. As Obama takes up this cutting critique, there will be inevitable panic. Some will say this new rhetoric doesn't suit him well--just as they decried Al Gore's attacks on the "powerful"--and they will call it a deviation from his promise to transcend old political divisions and heal the nation's rifts. (Fortunately, Obama's populism seems to be considerably less crude than Gore's 2000 iteration.) Indeed, the polls may show some reason for concern. That's because, when you're trying to define your opponent, it takes time for your case to set in. (It took the public two weeks to fully absorb McCain's fusillade against Barack Obama's celebrity.)

This new line of attack will not come naturally to Obama. As John B. Judis notes in this issue (see p. 18), there's a certain irony to his political career. Obama entered politics as a community organizer, schooled in persuading people by appealing to their self-interest. But, as a candidate for president, he has talked less about the self-interest of voters than about reform and hope and change and lobbyists, using language and appeals that don't speak all that directly to people's concerns about their own economic well-being.

If he doesn't feel completely comfortable speaking this language, he doesn't have much choice. An Obama loss would be truly astounding given the public's grim mood about the economy, but at the moment polls suggest it is entirely possible. His lackadaisical summer of shaved ice and European tours has hardly undermined him in any sort of catastrophic way. But it's time to realize that this election will slip away if he doesn't play his best hand.

By The Editors