Ed Driscoll

The Manufactured Macaca Moment That Wasn't

Jennifer Rubin on how the Washington Post lost in Virginia:

Bob McDonnell won big tonight in the Virginia gubernatorial race, as did the entire Virginia Republican party. The implications of the race will be sorted out soon enough. But one big loser is the Washington Post which may unwittingly have helped the Republican, despite their best efforts to put his opponent over the top.

On the last weekend in August the Post ran the first of dozens of stories about McDonnell’s 1989 masters’ thesis, in which he wrote, among other things, that working women were detrimental to families and that government should favor traditional marriage over gay unions. While they didn’t know the exact target, the McDonnell camp was expecting, as one top adviser put it, a “hatchet job” from the Post. A top campaign strategist says, “We always knew we’d have to fend off some attack from the Post, probably on a social issue. But in all candor we didn’t expect the thesis. It was a 20 year old paper.”

The Post was off and running, harping on the story for weeks. It was, some conservatives feared, a replay of the infamous “macaca moment” (a more successful Post election obsession) which helped sink George Allen’s 2006 Senate campaign.

The McDonnell camp quickly made some critical tactical decisions. First, the Monday after the story broke McDonnell held a 90-minute media call to explain his views, and answer all questions. Second, rather than respond to every potential allegation they focused on the most potent one–that McDonnell was hostile to working women. His TV ads focused heavily on this issue, featuring testimonials by his daughters and women who had worked for him.

Larry J. Sabato explains that “the thesis story actually helped Deeds at first. For nearly a month the contents of McDonnell’s thesis closed the gap to a near-tie.” But then Deeds went, as one party insider says, “bonkers” over the issue, badly overplaying his hand. McDonnell communications director Tucker Martin says, “It was like someone threw a tennis ball over the fence and we all watched the Labrador Retriever race after it, leaving the whole yard to us.” Deeds rolled out TV ads and a Twitter feed devoted to the thesis and even organized book clubs to conduct “readings” of the thesis.

One McDonnell adviser says that it took a “lot of discipline” both to narrow the focus and to continue to stick to his positive, issue-oriented message. One day no fewer than 11 Post editors and reporters peppered the campaign with thesis queries.

Why, sometimes it’s hard to tell where the Democratic candidate ends and the MSM begins!

Fortunately, as Jennifer writes, “The Post may have learned the hard way that voters are not so easily distracted. And Republicans, if they are smart, will plan ahead for the moment in their races when the mainstream media come after them.”

Too bad the GOP’s presidential candidate lacked that foresight in 2008.

Update: Related thoughts on the Post from Mark Hemingway.