Wondering whom the New York Times intends to endorse for president? A string of editorials published since the conventions ended may have tipped its hand:

John McCain has “pandered shamelessly by urging a gas tax holiday,” says the Times. His “kindergarten ad... is shamefully more of the same.” When he addressed the economy, “McCain lavished praise on workers, but ignored their problems. That is the real insult.” As for McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, her record contains “gaping blanks.” Her views are “alarmingly out of touch with reality. No less alarming was Mr. McCain’s decision to welcome them into the campaign.” After her interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, the Times said that “as we watched... we kept wondering what on earth John McCain was thinking.” His choice of Palin “raises profound questions about his judgment. If the choice was, as we suspect, a tactical move, then it was shockingly irresponsible.”

So the suspense hasn’t exactly been mounting.

Last Sunday the Times editorial page remembered that there’s also a Democrat in the race. “The Candidates and the Court” predicted that Barack Obama would nominate “moderate justices” to the Supreme Court, while McCain would favor “archconservatives [who] could be expected to lead the charge to eliminate the right to abortion... to undermine the right of habeas corpus... to strike down, or sharply limit, federal power to protect clean air and water; ensure food and drug safety; safeguard workers... prohibit discrimination against women and minorities, [and] further erode the separation between church and state.” As the Times didn’t spell out its own position on undermining habeas corpus, eroding the church-state divide, and what not, the editorial must be considered, by the Times‘s standards, even-handed.

The Chicago Tribune is a different story. Against the Times‘s seven editorials since the convention commenting on any of the candidates, I’ve spotted just two in the Tribune, both about Palin. They were as two-fisted as the Venus de Milo.

On September 9 the Tribune ventured that “Palin owes the nation answers about her record, qualifications and policy beliefs.” Lest that sound harsh, the editorial made it clear that the paper feels her pain: “We’re not here to shill for ‘those reporters and commentators’ Palin mocked in her speech to the Republican National Convention. On a personal level, sure, she has a right to be miffed. The disdain of PBS’s Gwen Ifill and some other TV journalists after Palin’s speech was visible to millions.”

Five days later the Tribune weighed in on the Gibson interview. “If you had a high opinion of Sarah Palin before... you probably still do. If you had thought she is not qualified to be president, the sit-down probably confirmed that judgment. And if you were withholding judgment, you most likely will want to see more before making up your mind.”

But what did the Tribune think? Would any actual conviction ever surface in the editorial?

“The more urgent question,” the Tribune went on, “is whether she is prepared to be president in the near future. She is not. The odds are good that she doesn’t have to be.”

And in conclusion, “There are plenty more questions that deserve answers. And if Palin can handle them with confidence and skill, she can do herself a world of good among voters who need proof that she can grow quickly into the responsibilities she seeks. It’s a challenging assignment for someone suddenly thrown on to the national political scene.

“But given the office she seeks, it’s the least the electorate can ask.”

This is the voice the Tribune speaks in every four years, when in the name of dishing it out fearlessly to both sides it tickles the Republicans once or twice with a peacock feather before endorsing them. The Tribune has never in its history supported a Democrat for president. If, one Sunday in mid-October, the Tribune endorses the McCain-Palin ticket, there will be nothing in its mid-September Palin editorials to explain away.

But the thing is, I’m not at all sure the Tribune will endorse the Republican ticket. There are good reasons why it might not —but also reasons anyone who wants to respect the Tribune should worry about.

Let’s start with the good reasons. As the Tribune‘s changed and the Republican Party’s changed over time, the paper’s absolute fidelity to the GOP in national elections has become increasingly absurd. If ever there were a time for the Tribune to take the leap, it would be now, when the newspaper of Lincoln would be embracing the symbolism of a Barack Obama presidency. And symbolism aside, it could easily find Obama the more conservative of the two candidates, as measured by fiscal judgment, fidelity to the constitution, and regard for appointment by merit.

Furthermore, Obama’s a hometown guy the Tribune knows well and, if past editorials are any indication, greatly admires. In January, endorsing Obama for the Democratic nomination, the Trib editorial page called him “the rare individual who can sit in the U.S. Senate yet have his career potential unfulfilled.... The professional judgment and personal decency with which he has managed himself and his ambition distinguish Barack Obama. We endorse him convinced that he could lead America in directions that the other Democrats could not.”

Sadly, that distinction doesn’t necessarily make Obama, in the Tribune‘s eyes, the equal of the worst Republican.

Every four years I seem to find myself writing one of two columns—the one that mocks the Tribune for inanely sticking to form, or the one that grudgingly admires the Tribune for honoring its roots and traditions by making the best case for the Republican presidential nominee there is to make—often a better case than the nominee made for himself. When I write that second column, I give the Tribune credit for its strong institutional sense of itself. Plenty of papers have none.

Presidential endorsements are rarely reached by a process with any transparency, and the public’s right to be cynical about them. The Tribune‘s endorsement of George W. Bush four years ago was met with so much hooting and thumb-nosing that Don Wycliff, then the public editor, addressed the subject in a column. “The Tribune is not blindly or uncritically partisan. No political party should take its support for granted,” he wrote. Sensitive to the fact the record made this assertion sound ridiculous, Wycliff ingeniously proposed that when the Tribune did oppose a Republican (which the paper resumed doing with Bush once he was safely back in office), “the Tribune‘s reputation as a ‘Republican newspaper’ gave extra potency to its counterintuitive action.”

Wycliff explained the endorsement process. The editorial board—which includes the publisher, the editor, and the public editor—met and sought a “consensus.” If he’d wished to, the publisher could’ve imposed a consensus of one; but in the case of the Bush-over-Kerry endorsement, “there was no need.”

But whatever “consensus” existed for Bush four years ago was unenthusiastic, I heard then, and I doubt there’s any at all for McCain in 2008. Bruce Dold still leads the editorial board, but today a new publisher, a new editor, and new owners are reckoning the Tribune‘s best interests. (There’s also no longer a public editor.) And, of course, we have two new candidates.

It may be that Sam Zell and company view the Trib‘s political heritage as its seed corn. But as this is a brash, arrogant, desperate bunch with no background in the newspaper business and hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to dig out from under, it probably does not. “Is our POV blurred or dated?” asked innovations chief Lee Abrams in a staff memo in April. He suggested the company was operating on cruise control, “accepting that the look and POV are fine, when historically they might be, but the history may hold us back from competing and winning in today’s vastly changed and intense new environment.”

On September 29 the Tower will unveil a leaner, cleaner Tribune transformed for one big reason—the old one cost too much to produce. If Zell and Abrams and their buddies think endorsing Obama will give the retooled Tribune a leg up in this hazardous environment, they won’t let history stop them. Then it’ll be up to Dold to persuade us that it’s still the newspaper of Lincoln talking, not the paper of—to quote the back of a T-shirt a Zell-hating Cubs fan was sporting a couple rows ahead of me at Wrigley Field last Sunday—a “money-grubbing old man.”

Dold’s in a tough position. Either the Tribune endorses the Republicans, as usual, and it becomes his job to produce an endorsement we can read without more snickering than usual, or the Tribune endorses Obama and he must sell this seismic shift in Tribune history as something other than an expedient recalculation of where the paper’s interests lie.

Not since Colonel McCormick has the Tribune been so closely identified with its owner, and the colonel was called many things but never a grave dancer. If Zell wants to do Dold a favor he should boast publicly that he makes money no matter who’s president so his papers can endorse anyone they like.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites.