Politics on Trial

It's a familiar scene, the defiant politician decrying the media with a tight-lipped wife by his side. Infidelity almost derailed the Clinton campaign in 1992, but the frenzy over John McCain's "lobbyist lady," a story first advanced by The New York Times, feels like a stale leftover from another era. It's oh-so-'90s when the country's problems--and the voters--are very much in the 21st century.

A female friend left a message on my voice mail wishing she subscribed to the Times so she could cancel her subscription. "What male chauvinist pigs they are," she exclaimed. "He talks to a female lobbyist, and they assume he's having an affair. If he talks to a male lobbyist, do they think he's gay? I'm not even a McCain fan," she said angrily. "But they may drive me to him. It's such a nonstory."

McCain may have done more than talk to the lobbyist in question, but still, who cares? It could add a touch of virility to his campaign, and at age 71, that's a plus. Even better, it's given the conservatives something else to rail about besides McCain's apostasy on their agenda. Bay Buchanan is furious at The New York Times for holding the story until after the Florida primary when her candidate, Mitt Romney, the GOP's Mr. Clean, would have benefited from its earlier publication. Bill Bennett's brother Bob is McCain's lawyer; Bill predicts that right-wing anger at the Times for publishing a thinly sourced story about an alleged impropriety that occurred eight years ago will do for McCain what he couldn't do for himself: rally conservatives to his side.

A story about a possible past dalliance, hints of quid pro quo favors without a smoking gun--it all evokes memories of campaigns past. Gary Hart, have you ever committed adultery? Not to mention the Clintons appearing on "60 Minutes" to confess problems in their marriage plus all the millions spent investigating Whitewater, a failed land deal. Politicians are not saints. McCain has cozy relationships with lobbyists like everybody else in Washington, including journalists. He is part of a system that he games at the same time he wants to reform it. It's legitimate to examine these relationships and expose whatever hypocrisy turns up, but the predictability of the findings will no doubt cushion the shock value.

Reporters will continue to poke around the private lives of public officials. That doesn't mean the voters will buy this line of inquiry with this particular set of candidates. If there's one thing conservatives love to hate almost as much as Hillary Clinton, it's the mainstream media. Liberals too got their fill during the Clinton era, which explains in part the drift away from Hillary. It's not her fault, but enough is enough.

In Thursday night's Democratic debate, Barack Obama batted away Hillary's charge that he had committed plagiarism by borrowing lines about how words matter from his friend and campaign co-chairman, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Obama called it the "silly season" when candidates go after each other on these non-issues. The audience booed Hillary, a low moment for her in a debate where she otherwise shined and delivered an exceptionally moving closing statement that sounded almost like a valedictory. She may not have altered the trajectory of the race, but she seems to understand that more than her candidacy is at stake, and that our whole way of doing politics is on trial in this election season.

The voters want someone new and fresh and different. She's been "out-Clintoned by Obama," says Bill Parsons, a professor of political science at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. "Every time she turns on the TV, she must say, 'Gosh, Bill, that sounds like you when you were campaigning in '92'." Allegations of draft-dodging didn't stop Clinton in those pre-9/11 days, but national security is McCain's trump card, and Parsons believes every last Republican will be there in November for McCain along with a goodly share of independents. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, the two would potentially be vying for the same voters, and "fear trumps hope," says Parsons. "Will voters go with the fear they know or with a misty, cloudy notion of hope? I understand the concept of hope, but I don't see it. I do see the fear."

McCain goes into the general election with the political equivalent of a ball and chain, tied to an unpopular war and an outgoing Republican president whose approval numbers are in the basement. Yet the polling matchups forecast an extremely tight election. "McCain is Bush with brains," says Parsons. He can make the arguments for a continued presence in Iraq, and because he's seen war in a way his opponents haven't; he will make sense in a way they can't. Whichever Democrat emerges with the nomination, nobody, not even Ralph Nader, can say the two parties don't have meaningful differences. And the stories that obsess cable-television junkies will be rightly relegated to the dustbin of history.