In my exchange with Jim Geraghty yesterday, I pointed out that center-right pundits make the best use of their time in this long presidential campaign replying to attacks on the GOP frontrunners rather than inviting them. Jim objected that he had done nothing of the sort, and pointed to his first paragraph praising Romney, which seemed to me a bit like Aaron Burr explaining to Hamilton fans that he had, after all, bowed first and then fired.
A commentary on a candidate's alleged vulnerabilities not coupled to a denunciation of the illegitimate attacks among those vulnerabilities is itself an attack on the candidate because it serves to mainstream the alleged shortcomings, especially the illegitimate ones. "Forewarned is forearmed" is not to me a persuasive defense for such pieces. "Joe had better watch out for the gambling problem story down the road" is not a helpful warning even if Joe likes to play cards in Vegas.
Now comes the New York Times' attack on Fred Thompson's wife dressed up as an article about an existing controversy. It makes my point very nicely. Here's a couple of graphs:
Now, with the possible candidacy of Fred D. Thompson, the grandfatherly actor and former Republican senator from Tennessee, whose second wife is almost a quarter-century his junior, comes a less palatable inquiry that is spurring debate in Internet chat rooms, on cable television and on talk radio: Is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?
The question may seem sexist, even crass, but serious people — as well as Mr. Thompson’s supporters — have been wrestling with the public reaction to Jeri Kehn Thompson, whose youthfulness, permanent tan and bleached blond hair present a contrast to the 64-year-old man who hopes to win the hearts of the conservative core of the Republican party. Will the so-called values voters accept this union?
Note that the Times brands the topic a "less than palatable inquiry," but does not explains why that is the case before offering a defense that the vulgar topic is being discussed "in Internet chat rooms, on cable television and on talk radio." Now, it has never been discussed on my talk show, or any other talk show that I listen to, nor kicked around on this web site and I don't recall seeing it "debated" on a cable show. The article reminds us that one television host, Joe Scarborough, blundered into this territory and was rightly embarrassed to have done so, but commentators avoided that controversy because it was both an outlier on a low rated show and so very tacky. Two obscure web sites are also mentioned, signaling that the topic hasn't dominated The Corner, Powerline or any other mainstream political blog.
There are of course many "controversies" swirling around the margins of the political world, and most of them stay on the far margins, or at least used to. One of the old saws about the superiority of the old media over the new is that the old timers had standards that kept the dreck out of the MSM. Say goodbye to that cliche.
The reason the "topic" of Mrs. Thompson wasn't covered much if at all in new media or, until this morning, old media, is that it is a vulgar and low topic, a gossipy sneer that some would call sexist and others simply cruel. Mrs. Thompson's youth and beauty have no bearing on Fred Thompson's capacity to be president. Fred Thompson married a woman younger than he is. She's attractive. That's it. But the Times runs a huge story on it as a way of attempting to rile up what the paper calls the "values voters," by which it means faith based voters. The paper helpfully adds "she is not a home wrecker," the first time in my memory that any such negative characterization has been used in a profile piece about a candidate's spouse.
This article strikes me as very much a cousin of John Kerry's shameful attempt to use Mary Cheney as an attack ad during one of the 2004debates. The line that is being crossed in both instances is one that has traditionally held in American politics --the family of the candidate is not a target unless that family member makes themselves a target and then only to the extent that they have entered the political fray, something the paper concedes Jeri Kehn Thompson as not done: "And unlike other potential presidential spouses like Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama, Mrs. Thompson lets her husband do most of the political talking." But because the lefties at the Times saw some advantage in trading in the lives of the candidate's family, it didn't hesitate to cross that line.
It is an astonishing attack, really, one that tells us --again-- that no line of attack on the GOP big three will be left unexplored by the MSM desperate to get a Democrat back into the White House.
Which brings me back to Jim's reply of yesterday afternoon, especially his concern that Romney's Mormon faith will be a vulnerability in the election cycle.
In an elegant, even subtle post, Professor Bainbridge alleges that "Mutt's nuttier than a bag full of chocolate covered almonds." And no, that's not a misprint, but how Professor B. refers to Romney. Professor B's post is a natural follow on to Jim's, just as the New York Times' piece will produce thousands of scribblings on Mrs. Thompson. That's just the way it works. Open the door to personal attacks, and they will march through and tip you for your efforts.
Professor B. also applauds "Jim for calling Hugh out for playing the anti-Mormonism card once too often," adding that "It ought to be possible to criticize Romney without being accused of religious bigotry." It is of course possible to jam Romney without leaving yourself open to a charge of religious bigotry, provided you aren't attacking Romney for being a Mormon. I don't think Jim Geraghty has an ounce of such bigotry in him --see my blurb for his book and my many endorsements of his many incredible contributions to political commentary over the years-- but I do think he made it more respectable to throw around anti-Mormon canards by worrying that people were going to throw around anti-Mormon canards.
I believe that attacks on Romney's faith that are bigoted have to be vigorously denounced, not worried over. I expect conservatives, especially those with an understanding of the left's long assault on the participation of people of faith in the politics, to understand that snide assaults on Mormon practice are going to be followed by snide asssaults on Catholic and evangelical beliefs and practices because religious bigots generally hate all religions except their own. Even if one can't be persuaded that they have skin in the game, religious bigotry is itself an evil thing that deserves denunciation whenever it appears, just as all sorts of bigotry ought to be denounced. If Barack Obama gets slammed over his race or Hillary over her gender, you can be assured that the left won't spend a lot of time worrying over whether those attacks are gaining traction, they'll be blasting away --rightly-- at the nutballs trading in the poisons that we have driven out of politics and should be working to keep far away from politics. Religious intolerance is one of those poisons. Professor Bainbridge is cavalier about its reappearance. I am not.
Some people really don't like Mormons. Some aspects of Mormon practice are strange to the public, and the vast chasm between Mormon theology and Protestant and Catholic beliefs cannot be bridged, and the debates between Mormon and non-Mormon theologians are loud and vigorous.
The point is that these facts should not matter in American politics, and that folks who want them to matter have bad intentions and should not be encouraged to think that those intentions will go unremarked upon, any more than the New York Times should think anybody is fooled by its hit piece on the Thompsons. Low politics is low politics.
Back to Jim then, but with a couple of questions I hope he will have time to answer: Do you think the Times piece is of the same sort as yours of yesterday? And what do you think of Professor Bainbridge's post? Is it what you were worried about and anticipated, or did it surprise you?