Sunday, May 18, 2008

The McCain scrutiny VII

Just when Arizona Sen. John McCain threatens to vie for freshness and originality, right when it looks like the engine of the Straight Talk Express might gain some momentum by doing more than pointing downhill … the engine sputters again. Two recent missteps reveal anew the earnest but lumbering imprecision’s of the McCain campaign, and reawaken concerns over just what the McCain campaign stands for.

There was his appearance of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” always a welcome and high-profile opportunity to poke fun at one’s opponents (and one’s self).

McCain was featured in a campaign-ad sketch in which the Arizona governor brandished his claim to have never used congressional earmarks — pork-barrel projects that work to the advantage of a congressman’s home state, as a favor to state or business interests.

“My friends, I’ve fought waste and government my entire career, and during more than 20 years representing Arizona in both the House and Senate, I have not once sought to bring pork-barrel spending back to my state,” McCain said Saturday night.

It’s a repeat of a longstanding McCain catechism, repeated at the Republican presidential candidates’ debate in January. “[I]n 24 years, as a member of Congress, I’ve never asked for nor received a single earmark or pork barrel project from my state,” McCain said in Manchester on Jan. 6.

But The Washington Post, which reviewed years of McCain correspondence, found a 1992 letter in which McCain petitioned the administration of President Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, to obtain a $5 million earmark for a wastewater project in Arizona after Congress rejected the request in its own spending bill.

After being rebuffed by his colleagues, McCain appealed his matter to William K. Reilly, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. "I would like to request that EPA either re-program $5 million out of existing funds or earmark the amount from an appropriate account," McCain wrote in a Oct. 9, 1992 letter to Reilly, saying the earmark was “crucial to protecting the public health and the environment.’”

The correspondence was some of that released over the years under the Freedom of Information Act, reported the Post’s John Solomon, in a December 2007 posting on The Washington Post campaign blog, The Trail.

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That gaffe on “Saturday Night Live” was obvious enough, to anyone who checks the available information (Google’s great for doing that). What was worse, for Team McCain, was what preceded it.

In what’s been seen as a thinly veiled swipe at Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, President Bush, speaking Thursday before the Israeli Knesset, departed from a longstanding rule of water’s-edge American electoral protocol and criticized Obama’s more conciliatory approach to engaging potential adversaries diplomatically.

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’

“We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

McCain jumped in on Friday, restoring his role as Bush administration hand puppet. “It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don't have enemies. But that’s not the world we live in. And until Senator Obama understands that reality, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, judgment and determination to keep us safe,” McCain said in a speech to the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Ky.

At a gun show in Charleston, W.Va., speaking earlier on Friday, McCain said: “I made it very clear … that we will not negotiate with terrorist organizations, that Hamas would have to abandon their terrorism, their advocacy to the extermination of the state of Israel, and be willing to negotiate in a way that recognizes the right of the state of Israel and abandons their terrorist position and advocacy.”

But James Rubin, former Clinton administration State Department spokesman, interviewed McCain for Sky News in January 2006 — a different John McCain than the one of today.

“They're the government,” McCain said in 2006, speaking of Hamas’ role as a legitimate player in the Middle East. “Sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, in one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy toward Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so ... But it’s a new reality in the Middle East. And I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, then they want democracy.”

Once again, on matters related to personal integrity, McCain has raised more questions than he resolves. Once again, an apparent flip-flop on issues important to Americans prompts the question: Which John McCain is the real John McCain?

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McCain’s politically reflexive tag-team attack on Obama was a mistake on two levels:

First, it counters the evolving narrative of his own campaign’s independence —McCain the Maverick. Wedding himself to Bush’s statement at the Knesset contradicts the notion of separation from Bush, the lamest of ducks now serving out a presidency that polls with some of the worst in the nation’s history. At the very time when McCain should be asserting his bona fides as a leader, McCain sprints back to the not-so-safe harbor of presidential cover to take a shot at his Democratic challenger. There’s not much that’s independent about doing that.

Second, it feeds the long-held perception that McCain is insincere or unprincipled, a suspicion reinforced by his own statements in the James Rubin interview and how they contradict what he said last week. At the time when McCain must be focused on staking out a position and sticking to it, McCain’s switchup on Hamas’ role in the Middle East points to something worse than a plan based on political opportunism. It frankly suggests he has no plan at all.

With appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “American Idol,” McCain is making a bid for humanizing his persona, the better to make him accessible to American voters. Other candidates have done the same. What’s missing from McCain’s efforts is a foundational sensibility for McCain to stand on — not a slogan but a bedrock of principles that’s not compromised by a contrary videotape. He won’t impart the idea of that platform of integrity with piling-on courtesy of the president, or flip-flops on positions about the Middle East.

Television can work as much for a candidate as against a candidate. There’s more than a chance that, as John McCain appears on more TV shows we’re invited to not take seriously, people may come to take him less than seriously, too.

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