Campaign reporters have a nose for conflict -- real or imagined

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Somewhere inside the brain of the presidential campaign reporter lies a huge lobe devoted to recognizing conflict.

From this hyper-developed brain center come stories about the certain demise of some politicians ( John McCain), the inevitable success of others ( Hillary Rodham Clinton) and the extreme probability that hostilities, once started, will never end.

The discordulum (as it’s known in my entirely imagined research on discord) can function beautifully, sussing out the combat that really does charge our presidential politics. But it has limits -- often firing on the same overheated synapses, even when conflict is waning.


A CNN anchorwoman warned Monday afternoon that New York’s Sen. Clinton could still “fight it all the way to the August convention,” although the cable network also reported that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was closing in on the nomination.

On Real Clear Politics, a popular website, a regular “political analyst” who writes under the name Thurlow Weed (after a 19th century New York political boss) predicted that Clinton’s failure to win more Florida and Michigan delegates in a weekend rules fight “virtually ensures a continued battle” by the “enraged” Clinton.

New York Post columnist Kirsten Powers described an ugly scene outside that Democratic gathering, with Clinton fans cozying up to a man peddling malicious anti-Obama curios. “Anger and resentment [seem] to run deep for many Clinton backers and [show] little sign of receding,” Powers insisted in Monday’s column.

Never mind that there hasn’t been a campaign-free day yet for the brawling Dems to make amends.

History instructs that many losing primary candidates, and especially their followers, harbor hard feelings. They vent their frustrations, carp at the winner and then, almost inevitably, close ranks behind their party’s standard-bearer.

The exceptions -- such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 fight against President Carter for the Democratic nomination -- only serve to highlight the rule.

So where does coverage of campaign ’08 go from here? Time magazine political reporter Karen Tumulty predicted at least one change.

“It’s been a great horse-race story. And the difference on the issues between the Democrats was not that great,” Tumulty said. “Where I think we have fallen short is in not having as much of a discussion about the issues. . . . Now we move into a general election, and we are going to have a sharper distinction on policy between the candidates. There will be a lot of discussion of the issues.”

Given that the press and the voters now have five months to focus on policy, it seems almost certain that the reality, and the hype, about interparty fratricide will not survive.

Will Clinton’s most ardent followers, particularly women, really jump in large numbers to McCain, a committed abortion foe? How many will make their fierce opposition to the Iraq war take a back seat to their hurt that Hillary has been disrespected?

It was not so long ago that the press had a similar fixation: McCain couldn’t seem to win his own party stalwarts, particularly the conservatives deemed crucial to victory in November.

A few weeks past their own primaries, Republicans began to think about the general election and a President Obama. They turned promptly back to McCain, as demonstrated by a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll last month, which found that nearly 90% of self-identified Republicans supported McCain over the senator from Illinois.

For discord-centric members of the media, it’s not so easy to give up the last story line. So expect another moment of cognitive dissonance on the near horizon: It will come when Clinton concedes, embraces Obama and begins working furiously for her onetime rival.

It’s what Clinton has promised all along. It just didn’t register in the media discordula.