Pollak: Democrats, Media Risk Repeating Mistake of Paul Wellstone with John McCain

Paul Wellstone memorial (Stacey Wescott / AFP / Getty)
Stacey Wescott / AFP / Getty

Democrats — and journalists — are indulging in effusive praise of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that goes beyond mere respect for a historic figure.

In some cases, the hyperbole is embarrassing.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) used his status as an icon of the civil rights struggle to trash McCain as a racist, accusing him of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.” After McCain’s passing on Saturday, Lewis called him a “warrior for peace” “who was never afraid to do what he believed was right.”

The Democrats’ obvious goal — one shared by the media and the “Never Trump” faction of Republicans — is to use McCain’s death to attack Trump.

There is reason to believe that McCain would have wanted it that way. He made it known, publicly and well in advance, that he did not want the president to attend his funeral. Instead, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — no fans of the 45th president — will be there. Most eulogies will not attack Trump directly, but the media will find every slight between the lines.

Sadly, McCain’s passing is not being observed for what it is — the exit of a heroic, if flawed, American hero. Instead, it is being used to rally opposition to Trump.

The media, who did so much to thwart McCain’s presidential ambitions, are now indulging in hagiography.

In 2008, CNN speculated about whether McCain was too old to be president. On Monday morning, it served up a sentimental piece about how he had loved Abba, the Swedish seventies supergroup.

There is little evidence to suggest the public — which liked, but did not love, McCain — shares the Beltway’s new nostalgia, and it may backfire as the effort to exploit his death becomes too egregious to ignore.

Democrats and their allies in the media seem to have forgotten the lessons of the memorial of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), who died tragically in a plane crash in 2002. The eulogies were brazenly political, turning a moment of national mourning into a campaign rally.

The public turned away in disgust, and some analysts concluded it cost Democrats the election four days later. It was one of the few times in recent decades that the opposition party has failed to take Congress during a midterm election.

The presence of so many Republicans at McCain’s funeral may temper the anti-Trump zeal. Or — given the high profile of “Never Trump” Republicans in the McCain camp — it may not.

The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in 2009 offers a similar cautionary example. After months of tributes, in which Americans were instructed that Obamacare would be the legacy of the “Lion of the Senate,” Massachusetts voters went to the polls and elected Republican Scott Brown, who opposed the bill, to replace him.

CNN’s David Gergen, a fixture of the establishment, inadvertently cemented Brown’s victory when he referred to “the Kennedy seat” in moderating a debate. “It’s the people’s seat,” Brown retorted.

McCain was a great and respected man, but the media, and the Beltway, have always overestimated his popular appeal.

As they exploit his passing, they may find that instead of rallying Trump’s opponents, they will have rallied his supporters.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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