N.Y. Times Reporter: We're OK With Obama's Centrist Head Fakes

New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney appeared on the Charlie Rose show on PBS on June 27 to demonstrate how reporters have noticed Barack Obama trying to dance away from the hard-left positions he took in the primaries, but they still want to paint him as a special politician, not a typical one. John McCain, on the other hand, has a muddled message: 

ROSE: Adam, what have you noticed about the Obama campaign? Where is it tacking?ADAM NAGOURNEY: The candidate himself has tacked noticeably to the center on a whole bunch of issues this week, you know, whether it's his reaction to the gun control case by the court or by the surveillance vote in Congress. I mean, he`s clearly taking positions now that he would have not have taken during the primary.That tends to happen in most races. I`m not saying it`s a good thing or a bad thing. He has more freedom to do it, because I think that Democrats are so intent on winning that they`re giving him some latitude. You have not seen him come under much criticism.By contrast, Senator McCain is more -- is more complicated to me. Because in some ways, you have seen him tack to the center, environment being number one. But in other ways, he has also been tacking to the right. So I have not quite figured out yet what his strategy is here, but Obama’s is pretty clearly what it is.

This is a strange analysis. On Nagourney's pet issue of gay rights, the Obamas have recently kept tacking left to please that constituency, so would that mean Obama is muddled, too?Nagourney says Democrats are giving Obama latitude to move to the center because they want to win, and then Nagourney demonstrated that latitude in trying to explain away Obama's flip-flops on gun control. Nagourney is willing to see Obama's position as acceptable wherever it lands, as long as it's done skillfully:

ROSE: In the "New York Times" today, Michael Powell said Barack Obama has taken a stroll this week away from traditional liberal political positions, his path towards the political center marked by artful leaps and turns. In vital pursuit -- in hot pursuit of what Bill Clinton once lovingly described as the vital center." NAGOURNEY: That story had a couple of elbows to it, which is totally fine. You know, I think -- you know -- I think on most of these things -- it`s hard to say, for example, accuse him of flip-flopping on most of these things. I think there is -- for example, on the gun -- the gun thing is the most interesting thing. There is evidence that in the past he supported a complete ban on handguns. He says it’s incorrect. He said he never really meant to do that. In this case, one of the things he`s getting hit on is his reaction to the court decision.The fact of the matter is, I think there is an intellectually consistent position that either you can take no matter how you feel about guns, that the court is basically saying you can say that individuals have a right to have guns but that communities have a right to regulate the use of guns or where they can be used. That’s what he’s saying.I’m not -- the texture of it, it looks like it’s more of a move to the center. I’m not sure it is that much in that case. But other things, no question about it. He’s doing it because he can do it. Right?ROSE: Is he becoming a conventional politician, some might say?NAGOURNEY: That is an excellent question. I think that that`s an excellent question. I think one of the biggest dangers that he has to face now is that he loses -- and I hate to use the cliche of the year, but I will -- his brand, OK? And his brand is as an unconventional politician, a guy who is going to change the way politics is done. And if you have a run of stories, that say, campaign finance, the way he decides to take money, flip-flopping, moving to the center, not answering questions -- if that begins to happen, that could become -- begin to damage his sort of like brand, what it is about him that people like. But this is - it`s still early. It`s just something he has got to watch out for.

The media is also guarding his "brand," since they worked so hard to sell it like they were selling brushes door to door. When the subject turned to McCain, the tone of impending defeat kicked in. Notice how liberals say he’s not on message, which is a nice way to dismiss someone who’s not consistently conservative. If he was pounding away from the right, consistently, liberal reporters would be much harsher:

ROSE: The McCain campaign, Adam, tell me where it seems to be going.ADAM NAGOURNEY: They seem to be in a period of, shall we say, transition. I think that most Republicans would agree that he did not use this period of time since he essentially won the nomination in February until now to really position himself strongly, with the one exception of raising money. He has raised money.Part of that I think was hard to break through the fight that was going on. A part of it is you just get a sense of the campaign in turmoil. You don`t really have a sense of what his message is. You don`t really have a sense of what his, you know, narrative is. So I think he`s got a lot of work to do.He clearly has a really tough battle here. The head winds he`s facing are tremendous. This attempt by the Democrats to connect him to President Bush seems to be working so far, and he`s got a lot of work cut out for him.

I hear a lot of this "head winds" talk against him, and I always have the same reaction. If McCain were in a wind tunnel, it’s the national media that’s the fan. Certainly there is the third-term-for-Bush challenge, but the tougher battle is the you’re-running-against-our-Superman challenge. If the media truly favored McCain, and you believe the tight polls (and not the Newsweek enormous-gap polls), wouldn’t McCain be ahead in the polls?

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis