Why <em>The Post</em> Has Failed to 'Macaca' Bob McDonnell (...so far)

Posted: Sep 25, 2009 10:03 AM

A few weeks ago, the DC Examiner's Michael Barone astutely wrote,

In the 2006 campaign season the Washington Post ran more than a dozen front-page stories on Senator George Allen’s reference, at an August 11 campaign stop almost 400 miles from Washington, to an opposition campaign staffer as “Macaca.” One of these stories, perhaps, had enough news value to be worthy of the front page; the others were placed there with the obvious intent of defeating Allen and electing his Democratic opponent Jim Webb, who did indeed win by a 50%-49% margin.

Now there’s a campaign on for governor of Virginia, and the news editors of the Post seem to be using their front page once again to defeat the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, and elect Democrat Creigh Deeds.

Barone, of course, is not alone in seeing the parallel.  It could be argued that it was not coverage of the "Macaca" comment itself -- but the Washington Post's relentless daily assault on Allen -- which ultimately doomed his candidacy. 
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Barone is also correct in noting that the Post seems to have had similar intentions regarding the Bob McDonnell thesis story.  But something went wrong.  While Deeds appears to have gained on McDonnell since the story broke, the barrage of anti-McDonnell columns and articles do not appear to have been a game-changer. 

So what went wrong?  According to state senator Steve Martin, chairman of the Virginia Faith and Freedom Coalition, "The Washington Post has failed in its effort to 'Macaca' Bob McDonnell because he's simply not the man they portrayed him to be."

That may well be true, but anyone who follows politics knows that sometimes false attacks do work.  In my estimation, there are many other reasons why the Post couldn't replicate their previous success of taking down Allen.

First, the current political environment is completely different (and more favorable for Republicans) than it was in 2006.  George Allen didn't realize it at the time, but he was up against a tsunami.  Second -- fair or not -- George Allen's image and persona of being a "good old boy" may have helped him as governor of Virginia in the 90s, but in 2006, it made him susceptible to charges he was out of touch and might even harbor some latent racism.  Simply put, whether true or not, the Post's attacks on Allen had the benefit of seeming believable. 

Conversely, Bob McDonnell's manner and image is that of a modern-day, urban professional.  As McDonnell's recent TV ads successfully show -- without directly stating -- it simply not believable that this well-spoken, handsome man is some sort out-of-touch neanderthal. 

Images matter more than words in politics, and whereas the images of Allen saying "Macaca" were shown over and over again, there is no image (at least, not yet) of McDonnell saying controversial things.  The Post has his college theses but, so far, their columns and articles aren't complimented by the presence of any  video.  Conversely, McDonnell's TV ads have effectively portrayed him as being a mainstream Republican whom you might bump into at the Whole Foods store in Arlington, Virginia.  Meanwhile, McDonnell's opponent, Creigh Deeds, a state senator representing a rural area, seems frumpy.  McDonnell is clearly winning the optics war.

Lastly, could it be that Americans are more outraged by charges of racism than by charges of sexism?  Allen was essentially accused of being a racist, and it doomed his candidacy -- and his presidential ambitions.  Conversely, McDonnell has essentially been accused of being a religious zealot and of sexism, but the smart money is still on him to win in November.  Could it be that the difference is really about what they were accused of?
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