Ken Layne and Ben Smith on Being ‘In the Tank’ and Why McCain’s So Resilient

John McCain descending with Steve Schmidt. Photo: AP

Every day until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, Wonkette's Ken Layne and Politico's Ben Smith discuss the McCain campaign's accusation that Smith is "in the tank," the possibility of Henry Paulson and Chris Dodd taking over the country, and the proliferation and pitfalls of political blogs.

K.L.: Hello Ben! The McCain campaign says you're "in the tank." How is it down there?

B.S.: Lots of echoes. I can hardly hear you.

K.L.: So you just asked the campaign why they were reacting so strangely to the NYT story about Rick Davis and the lobbying he did for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the response was…

B.S.: I asked about a series of details that Steve Schmidt got wrong in telling reporters to investigate Obama, and whether they had any evidence to support Schmidt's claims on those details. One McCain guy told me that he had the big picture right, and that these were just details. The other just told me, "You're in the tank." They're in a tough place with the press, I think. They spent a few weeks attacking the press and bragging that the press didn't matter, and now they're trying to work the refs.

K.L.: Oh, it's a just a minor spat in a decades-long love affair. Do you get any sense of how this daily squabbling with campaign reporters is affecting the actual campaign for the undecideds?

B.S.: Well, there are two things going on here. One is that attacking the press is a way of pumping up the Republican base. It's an electoral strategy.

The other, though, is that — as the McCain camp seems to be realizing — McCain's identity as a truth-teller is a pretty important thing to his campaign, and the disregard for the press, which was really reflected in a disregard for getting called out on false statements, may have chipped away at that. There was a round of stories, essentially, calling him a liar. That can't be good.

And today, it seems like instead of the story being that Palin met with world leaders, it's going to be that she tried to toss a CNN reporter out of the photo spray.

K.L.: Right, and now you've got conservatives like George Will questioning not only McCain's honor, but his sanity.

B.S.: The left is jumping all over that Will column, but he's not exactly coming from the same place they are.
He's all about defending Chris Cox.

K.L.: I don't know what the left is thinking. I'm just thinking that George Will is pretty much the only columnist in my local rural daily, and that sort of sustained assault on McCain's character — which is all he's running on — has got to hurt.

B.S.: Rural daily? Do you write Wonkette on a farm?

K.L.: I live in the middle of the Mojave Desert on an abandoned horse ranch. Abandoned by horses, anyway. My co-editor is in D.C.

B.S.: I'm in New York City, which feels equally irrelevant to the campaign most days. Today the campaign even feels totally irrelevant to Wall Street. The candidates are running around attacking each other over coal while Chris Dodd runs the country.

K.L.: Ha, Chris Dodd has become president after all! It would be hilarious if Paulson just appointed Dodd president and canceled the election.

B.S.: It's a real possibility.

K.L.: You think? This is definitely one of those Plato moments when smart people survey the situation and say, "Ah, what the hell, let's try some other form of government we don't have to think about."

B.S.: "Smart people"? Not sure that's being widely considered back here on the East Coast.

K.L.: You know, the fragility of democracy, etc. Didn't you read your Plato in school? (I didn't, but I've read the Wiki.)

B.S.: I get it. Paulson as elite guardian swooping in to rescue us.

So can I ask a Wonkette question? Last cycle, you guys were basically the only one doing your brand of plugged-in snark on the election. Now, you have so many imitators, including — to a degree — us, blogs on the Times and the Post, etc. Have you had to get more meta? How do you deal?

K.L.: We're just a topical comedy magazine that happens to be online, which is where you have to be to keep up with all this idiocy. This campaign is very different from 2000, when I'd spend a half-hour trying to explain "blog" to some DNC media person.

It's very rare that a campaign tries to correct the record or whatever with Wonkette, as we'll just post the e-mail and call them names. As Steve Schmidt often says about us, we are not "by any standard a journalistic organization."

B.S.: Did you chase the Sarah Palin baby rumormongering? That provoked (yet another) round of agonizing about standards in parts of the online journo world, though possibly not your part…

K.L.: Oh, a little. We sort of discovered Palin two years ago and made her our pet cause for a few weeks — "Look, a Republican who isn't molesting kids or going to jail soon!" But we rapidly got tired of her, because she's just some wing-nut small-town anger bear using an elected office for vengeance against her various relatives' ex-lovers.

The day McCain announced her as running mate, though, was a happy day for Wonkette. We were the only non-Alaskan Website with a bunch of Palin stuff, so it was good for traffic.

B.S.: The trooper story you're referring to is a bit of a classic. The underlying story seems pretty understandable. This guy is, she believes, beating up a member of her family. She understandably wants to get him fired, and allegedly pulls a string or two. I doubt anyone would care, had she not then denied it.

K.L.: It's just all so tawdry. It insults me when the kind of low-rent high jinks we use for fodder on Wonkette ends up as campaign issues in the presidential race. The economy is not just going into recession, it's collapsing entirely. We are stuck in two absurd wars that cannot be "won." We haven't had this sort of income gap since that other Great Depression.

B.S.: Do you recall fondly an election that was fought largely on policy issues? This 60-day stretch here is not, traditionally, a terribly high-minded moment in American public life.

K.L.: Yes. 1992 seemed mostly about issues, despite the Clinton bimbo stuff and the bizarre Perot sideshow. 2000 was largely about issues — relatively trivial issues, because we were at peace and the economy was relatively good, but still about issues.

B.S.: They were cast very much as matters of character, though. George H.W. Bush was "out of touch" — and there was that famous moment with his looking puzzled in a supermarket, at the scanner. (Jonathan Martin tells me that's a great wrong done to Bush, though. It was apparently in fact a newfangled scanner that was being rolled out at a supermarket convention.)

K.L.: True, and the whole McCain's mansions thing is along the lines of Bush 41 confused by a supermarket. I have heard the defense of Bush, on that, and I don't buy it. If GHWB had been hanging out in supermarkets over the previous twelve years, that would've been a great failure of Secret Service protection. After all, his boss got shot in the street.

B.S.: Amazing how fast the mansion line just vanished. It clearly wasn't cutting as deep as the Obama campaign hoped. That's one thing that campaign hasn't quite found: a way to define McCain, personally.

K.L.: The American Dream is still alive, in that sense. Everybody wants to be rich and have an MTV crib, even if they never will. So they have a hard time getting angry at McCain and his seven castles.

B.S.: Yeah. And his public image just seems pretty resilient. People feel that, to some degree, they know who he is. You must feel this too — how many more crazy, viral conspiracy theories do you get about Obama and Palin?

K.L.: Much easier to get upset at a yuppie law professor who eats fancy salads and lives in a relatively modest house.

B.S.: And — to veer out of Thomas Frankland for a second — who burst recently on to the national scene. There's a whole universe of people who want to be suspicious of him or dislike him, and they've found a lot to hold on to. McCain doesn't seem to arouse the same personal anger.

K.L.: There are no real conspiracies with Palin, just mutterings that end up being mostly true. The Obama stuff is insane — I write a weekly column for AOL, with unmoderated comments. I've quit reading them, because they make me want to see Paulson appointed Grand Moff dictator.

B.S.: The comments sections on political sites, including both of ours and this one, are a really depressing thing to me. When I covered New York politics, they were often abusive, but at least vaguely reality-based.

K.L.: Politico is the worst! Where do those commenters come from? They obviously don't read the articles.

B.S.: Hey! Your commenters suck, too. No — that's unfair. The sections suck.

K.L.: Ha-ha-ha.

B.S.: There are often voices of reason in there, trying vainly to be heard.

K.L.: We ban about a dozen commenters a day, for various crimes against humor and decency.

B.S.: I guess that's where ours come from, then.

K.L.: Yes, we send them to Politico. "Just type whatever you want, nobody cares over there!"

B.S.: We're working on it. But if you can ask them not to do that thing where they cut and paste a racial slur into 50 consecutive comments, I'd be much obliged.

Related: Ever Hawkish, McCain Campaign Declares War on Press
Eli Attie and Ken Layne on Whether Obama Can Steer This Election Back to Substance

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.