Thursday, June 12, 2008

The McCain scrutiny VIII

With the Democratic bloodbath suddenly, mercifully over, it’s been expected that the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain would have solidified its position, with McCain (the presumptive Republican nominee for almost four months) able to capitalize on the Democrats’ endless barroom brawl by clearly defining himself, fortifying his strengths and shoring his campaign up in the broken places.

The luxury of time is wasted on some people, and John McCain has been one of them. In the weeks and months since his presumptive status, Team McCain has been plagued by internal missteps that are basic to the candidate and his organization. From problematic connections with the lobbyists larding his campaign to inconsistencies on positions about earmarks and the role of Hamas in the Middle East, from questions about character and temperament to continuing problems with characterizing facts about the Iraq war, the Iraqi people and national security (presumably his strong suit), the Arizona senator has shown an inconsistency and imprecision of message that’s been breathtaking.

A statement made by McCain on Wednesday — that a timetable for returning American troops home from Iraq was “not too important" — has aroused doubts about his campaign’s foundational claim that he represents a militarily strong America … indeed, aroused doubts about whether McCain has the military capacity to be commander-in-chief.

Interviewed on the NBC “Today” show by Matt Lauer, and questioned about whether the purported success of the troop escalation known as the “surge” accelerated the value of a timetable for troop rotation from Iraq, McCain said, “that’s not too important. What’s important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That's all fine.”

Besides the obvious insensitivity of the “not too important” statement, which Brandon Friedman of, a veterans’ service and advocacy organization, called “a morale crusher” for the troops in Iraq, it contradicted what McCain had said on May 15, at a speech in Columbus, Ohio:

“By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who has sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in their freedom … the Iraq war has been won.”

"The job of the commander in chief is to understand the fundamentals of the conflict in which you have the troops engaged. And it is becoming crystal clear that John McCain doesn't understand it," said Sen. John Kerry, to the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. "This is an enormous flaw on his candidacy, which is supposedly hung on his ability to serve as commander in chief... There are series of contradictions in his statements that reflect a fundamental misunderstand[ing] of the conflict."

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The “Today” show debacle was only the latest disconnect between McCain’s historical narrative and support for legislation that resonates with that personal narrative. McCain has consistently opposed passage of a new GI Bill that would increase educational and other benefits to Iraq war veterans — despite his long standing as a veteran and a presumed champion of the military.

The flip-flops are being noticed by others in the military — people prepared to call the senator on his shortcomings (maybe “call the emperor on his clothes” is a better analogy).

“I know he's trying to get traction by seeking to play to what he thinks is his strong suit of national security,” Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander, said of McCain in a June 11 interview with Seth Colter Walls of the Huffington Post. “The truth is that, in national security terms, he's largely untested and untried. He's never been responsible for policy formulation. He's never had leadership in a crisis, or in anything larger than his own element on an aircraft carrier or [in managing] his own congressional staff. It's not clear that this is going to be the strong suit that he thinks it is.”

“McCain's weakness is that he’s always been for the use of force, force and more force. In my experience, the only time to use force is as a last resort. ...

"When he talks about throwing Russia out of the G8 and makes ditties about bombing Iran, he betrays a disrespect for the office of the presidency.”

Clark, whose name has infrequently surfaced as a possible contender for the vice presidential spot on an Obama ticket, said McCain “has pretty much bought the central thrust of the Bush administration's foreign policies: relying on threat and bluster [and] isolating people we don't agree with instead of engaging them.”

That McCain association with the Bush White House is especially problematic now, in the wake of the latest bipartisan report on prewar Iraq intelligence released June 5 by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“Before taking the country to war, this Administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the Administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence,” Rockefeller said in the report.

“In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent,” he said. “As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

That McCain association with the Bush White House is especially troublesome, in the wake of a BBC News investigation that estimated that $23 billion in U.S. military equipment and materiel in Iraq is unaccounted for. “It may well turn out to be the largest war profiteering in history," said Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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The McCain campaign is facing a challenger that may be insurmountable: the McCain campaign.

Its problem is less political than it is existential, not so much what it says as what it is: a political campaign at odds with itself. Team McCain is under fire for sending inconsistent messages: about McCain and his support of the military; about McCain and his use of lobbyists; about McCain and his command of facts about the Iraq war and the Iraqi people; about McCain and his disdain for congressional earmarks; about McCain and his relationship with a failed and feckless Republican administration.

A Republican strategist thought he had the right prescription. The strategist told The Huffington Post’s Thomas B. Edsall recently that “McCain has not claimed the maverick ground that should be his. He has not seized the mantle of ‘change’ and reform that he could own by going to Washington and saying, ‘you know me. You know I've been a reformer all my life. Now, here's how I am going to change Washington if you elect me president.’”

But a strategy like that would be a hopeless enterprise even if Barack Obama hadn’t previously and legitimately grabbed the brass-ring identity of change agent. A captive of his own political history, willingly tied to the mast of the ruinous Iraq war, and employing a campaign staff thick with K Street lobbyist insiders, McCain can’t hope to lay claim to the mantle of Reformer. He’s been inside the system for too long to be taken seriously as an outsider.

Launched with purpose and ambition and flags flying, the campaign of John McCain is right now in a dead calm, going nowhere, a ship with a compass whose philosophical magnetic north apparently doesn’t exist, a ship that can’t get any distance from the new wreck of the Hesperus that is the Bush administration.

There are no rescue boats on the horizon right now.
Image credits: McCain by flags, McCain in Albuquerque (bottom): T toes, republished under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0. Bush and McCains, McCain and Petraeus: Public domain.

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