by: Paul Krugman, The New York Times
Al Gore never claimed that he invented the Internet. Howard Dean didn't scream. Hillary Clinton didn't say she was staying in the race because Barack Obama might be assassinated. And Wesley Clark didn't impugn John McCain's military service.
Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, titled his tell-all memoir "What Happened." But a true account of modern American politics should be titled "What Didn't Happen." Again and again we've had media firestorms over supposedly revealing incidents that never actually took place.
The latest fake scandal fit the usual pattern as an awkwardly phrased remark, lifted out of context and willfully misinterpreted, exploded across the airwaves.
What General Clark actually said was that Mr. McCain's war service, though heroic, didn't necessarily constitute a qualification for the presidency. It was a blunt but truthful remark, and not at all outrageous - especially given the fact that General Clark is himself a bona fide war hero.
Yet the Clark affair did reveal something important - not about General Clark, but about Mr. McCain. Now we know what a McCain administration would represent: namely, a third term for Karl Rove.
It was predictable that the McCain campaign would go wild over the Clark remarks. Mr. McCain's run for the White House has always been based on persona rather than policy: he doesn't have ideas that voters agree with, but he does have an inspiring life story - which, contrary to the myth of the modest maverick, he talks about all the time. The suggestion that this life story isn't relevant to his quest for office was bound to provoke a violent reaction.
But the McCain campaign went beyond condemning General Clark's remarks; it went out of its way to distort them. "This backhanded slap against John as not being a worthy warrior because he just got shot down is one of the more surprising insults in my military history," said retired Col. Bud Day, who participated in a conference call organized by the campaign. In fact, General Clark had said no such thing.
The irony, not lost on Democrats, is that Col. Day himself has done what he falsely accused Wesley Clark of doing: he appeared in the 2004 Swift boat ads that impugned John Kerry's wartime service.
The willingness of the McCain campaign to engage in these tactics, employing such tainted spokesmen, tells us that the campaign has decided to go negative - specifically, to apply the strategy Karl Rove used so effectively in 2002 and 2004 (but not so effectively in 2006), that of portraying Democrats as unpatriotic.
And sure enough, Adam Nagourney of The New York Times reports signs of the "increasing influence of veterans of Mr. Rove's shop in the McCain operation."
Will Rovian tactics work this year?
In 2002 and 2004, Republicans were so successful at playing the patriotism card thanks to a combination of compliant media and cowering Democrats. At first, the Clark affair suggested that nothing has changed. News organizations reported as fact the false assertion that General Clark criticized Mr. McCain's military service, and the Obama campaign rushed to "reject" his remarks.
"Two days into the Wesley Clark fallout," wrote the Columbia Journalism Review on Tuesday morning, "the press, the G.O.P., and the Obama campaign all seem to have agreed that Clark's recent remarks on John McCain's service record were at best impolitic and at worst despicable."
Since then, however, both the press and the Obama campaign seem to have recovered some of their balance. Opinion pieces have started to appear pointing out that General Clark didn't say what he's accused of saying. Mr. Obama has also declared that General Clark doesn't owe Mr. McCain an apology for his "inartful" remarks and denies that his own condemnation, in a speech given on Monday, of those who "devalue" military service was aimed at the general.
In the end, the Clark affair may have strengthened the Obama campaign. Last week, with his cave-in on wiretapping, Mr. Obama was showing disturbing signs of falling into the usual Democratic cringe on national security. This may have been the week he rediscovered the virtues of standing tall.
Furthermore, my sense, though it's hard to prove, is that the press is feeling a bit ashamed about the way it piled on General Clark. If so, news organizations may think twice before buying into the next fake scandal.
If so, the campaign has just taken a major turn in Mr. Obama's favor. After all, if this campaign isn't dominated by faux outrage over fake scandals, it will have to be about things that really did happen, like a failed economic policy and a disastrous war - both of which Mr. McCain promises will continue if he wins.