June 19, 2008
Like the vast majority of our 300 million or so fellow citizens--but unlike most of the elite political reporters covering the presidential campaign--your authors have never had the pleasure of meeting Arizona Senator and Republican presidential nominee John McCain. We've never sat with him in a semicircle on the red velvet couches of the Straight Talk Express downing Dunkin' Donuts and participating in endless bull sessions that long outlast our store of questions. We've never talked strategy openly with McCain and his advisers over drinks and dinner, or been fed information to use against his opponents. Perhaps even more regrettably, we have not enjoyed the pleasure of joining our media colleagues for a sunny afternoon, chez McCain, "swinging lazily back and forth on a tire swing strung up under a massive sycamore tree in a quiet Arizona canyon, the sound of a gushing stream nearby," as the candidate, according to Newsweek, "carefully monitor[ed] giant slabs of pork ribs on a smoking grill."
We've enjoyed him on The Daily Show, admired his courage in Vietnam and imagine we understand his appeal. Perhaps if we had all spent more time hanging, we would appreciate the senator's company, his hospitality and his eagerness to speak his mind in our presence as so much of the MSM has. It is even possible that we would call him John when speaking with him. And let's be honest, we cannot be certain that, were he still running against George W. Bush, we would not fall into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as "we"--as in, "I hope we kill Bush"--which apparently happened with some frequency during McCain's unsuccessful 2000 run.
But even though we might be taken with McCain personally, we would like to think that we would resist the urge to offer the sort of spontaneous testimonials to his character that have gushed from the pens of so many MSM journalists. These would include calling McCain "a cool dude" (Jake Tapper, Salon); "an original, imaginative, and at times inspiring candidate" (Jacob Weisberg, Slate); "a man of unshakable character, willing to stand up for his convictions" (the late R.W. Apple Jr., New York Times); "a man of intelligence, honor and enormous personal and political courage" (Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek); "blunt, unyielding, deploying his principles.... What he does do is what he's always done, play it as straight as possible.... The maverick candidate still" (Terry Moran, ABC News's Nightline); "worldly-wise and witty, determined to follow the facts to the exclusion of ideology...willing to defy his own party and forge compromise...pragmatic in the service of the national interest...rises to passion when he believes that America's best values are at stake" (Michael Hirsch, Newsweek); "kind of like a Martin Luther" (Chris Matthews, MSNBC's Hardball); "the perfect candidate to deal with what challenges we face as a country" (Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC's Morning Joe); "rises above the pack...eloquent, as only a prisoner of war can be" (David Nyhan, Boston Globe); "the bravest candidate in the presidential race" (Dana Milbank, Washington Post); "an affable man of zealous, unbending beliefs" and "the hero [who] still does things his own way" (Richard Cohen, Washington Post); and who, in "an age of deep cynicism about politicians of both parties...is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest" (David Broder, Washington Post).
Believe us, we could go on (and on and on...). Suffice it to say that no candidate since John F. Kennedy, and perhaps none since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has enjoyed such cozy relations with the press. In his book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, Tucker Carlson explains the source of many journalists' attraction to the Arizona senator: "McCain ran an entire presidential campaign aimed primarily at journalists.... To a greater degree than any candidate in thirty years, McCain offered reporters the three things they want most: total access all the time, an endless stream of amusing quotes, and vast quantities of free booze." Ryan Lizza, reporting for The New Yorker from the current Straight Talk, notes the dichotomy of McCain's press-friendly campaign style and that of his opponents: "The Democratic candidates rarely speak to the traveling press. McCain not only packs his bus with reporters (whom he often greets with an affectionate 'Hello, jerks!') but talks until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions." Lizza also notes that the "chumminess" between the campaign and the reporters has almost no boundaries. Questions of strategy--even media manipulation--are discussed openly with reporters present, and "McCain's senior advisers dine almost nightly with the people covering the candidate."
The degree to which members of the press find all this irresistible is evident by the confessions that reporters have occasionally offered in public; confessions that have few, if any, precedents in recent political history. For instance, Charles Lane, writing in the October 18, 1999, issue of The New Republic, admitted, "I know it shouldn't be happening, but it is. I'm falling for John McCain." His declaration followed that of Michael Lewis, who, in the same magazine, compared his feelings to "the war that must occur inside a 14-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls."
The "Never Mind" Syndrome
McCain flatters the press in other ways as well. For instance, he is particularly adept at embracing reporters' romantic notions of themselves as tough-minded, hard-charging opponents of power, particularly conservative power. After facing questions from the late Tim Russert, host of NBC's influential Meet the Press, he opined, "I just had my interrogation on Russert.... It's a good thing I had all that preparation in North Vietnam!" One can hardly imagine what it must have been like for McCain to endure what he did as a POW in North Vietnam, but it's hard to believe that it is an appropriate metaphor for taking questions about his main opponent in the Republican primary such as this: "Is Governor Romney waving the white flag?... Is Governor Romney suggesting surrender?"
And then there's the special treatment, given no other American politician, to allow McCain to make his case to the public. When Media Matters conducted a study of Sunday-morning network guest lists, it discovered that the most frequent invitee during the nine-year period of 1997-2005 was McCain, who had appeared 124 times--over 50 percent more than his closest competitor. What's more, not only was he the most frequent guest, he was the most honored. McCain was accorded eighty-six solo interviews. The runner-up in this solo interview sweepstakes was former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle, with just forty-five. As Senate minority leader, Daschle was the highest-ranking official in his party; McCain, who was on the outs with the leadership of his party for much of this period, was the leader of nothing but himself. In fact, during the early period of Bush's presidency, before--apparently--he decided that he wanted to be the Republican nominee for President in 2008, McCain often represented the Democratic position on questions about taxes and political reform.
McCain's legendary diversionary walks from the path of the Republican straight-and-narrow so impressed his friends in the media that they appeared to have passed a secret law among themselves never to refer to the senior Arizona senator without also using the word "maverick." As David Brock and Paul Waldman demonstrate in their book Free Ride, the words "maverick" and "McCain" appeared within ten words of each other 2,114 times in 2000, a practice that has continued to the present at roughly the same rate.
On issue after issue, and from every side of the journalistic political spectrum, a campaign of deception and distortion has helped to ensure that McCain's extreme positions and politically inspired flip-flops remain far from the consciousness of the average voter. Just as the media-promoted notion that George W. Bush was the kind of guy with whom one might enjoy a few beers managed to obscure the predictable catastrophes that lay in store for this nation once he became President, so too can the deep-seated media denial of McCain's extremist policies and addiction to political expediency mask the fact that his victory in November would result in a continuation--and even, in some instances, an expansion--of the very policies that have brought the nation to the brink of irreversible disaster.
According to an extensive Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken in early May, only 27 percent of voters have positive views of the Republican Party, the lowest level for either party in the survey's nearly two-decade history. A clear majority of voters in the same survey said they wished for a Democratic President. And yet, in what the Journal reporters termed a "remarkable" finding, McCain remained in a dead heat with Obama and Clinton in head-to-head match-ups. The authors' explanation: "McCain's image is trumping negatives such as the war and the economy." More recent polls continue to show McCain running well ahead of any generic "Republican" candidate. It's true that before the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became the most famous man in America, coverage of Obama had been extremely favorable. And McCain's easy ride has seen some speed bumps in recent weeks, regarding both his army of conflicted lobbyists/advisers and a poorly received speech on the night Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. But decades of devotion to McCain's causes and character are not likely to be erased overnight, even in the event of an unlikely U-turn on the part of most of the MSM.
Indeed, the effects of past coverage can be discerned in the results of another survey released in May, by the Pew Research Center, which found that most voters described McCain as "a centrist whose views are fairly close to their own." These voters might as well be visiting Casablanca for the waters. McCain calls himself a thoroughgoing conservative, and he's got the statistics to prove it. He has voted with his party almost 90 percent of the time this term, which puts him ahead of twenty-nine other Republicans, including his Arizona colleague Jon Kyl, who ranks second in his party's leadership. According to VoteView, McCain's voting record in 2005-06 would place him second in the contest for America's most conservative senator in the 109th Congress and eighth in the 110th Senate. McCain supported Bush in 95 percent of his votes in 2007 and has managed to achieve a perfect 100 percent score so far in 2008. But voter ignorance in the case of the "real McCain" is hardly the fault of the voters. They are simply consuming news reports from media that refuse to take McCain's politics seriously.
Examine McCain's position on any given question and compare it with the press coverage of that position. Again and again, you will see that many of the most admired and respected reporters in the business are not merely "in the tank" for McCain; they are practically unpaid members of his campaign staff.
Media love for John McCain manifests itself in myriad ways; sometimes it involves inventing facts, other times simply ignoring inconvenient ones. For instance, we learn from Media Matters that McCain made an April 1 appearance at elite Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, during his "biography" tour. But when CNN reported on the visit four days later, Jim Acosta failed to mention that McCain happened to be a graduate of this very same (very expensive) boarding school. Similarly, on the April 18 edition of The Situation Room, an onscreen chart showed McCain's income to be significantly lower than that of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton when combined with the income of their spouses. However, the chart did not include any income earned by McCain's spouse, Cindy, whose inherited beer-distributorship fortune is estimated to be valued in nine figures.
Such indulgences pale, however, in comparison with the lengths to which many are willing to go to portray McCain as the kind of hero they apparently wish he would be. Consider the question of whether the United States should employ torture against its prisoners. The liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes rapturously of McCain's opposition to the Bush/Cheney endorsement of illegal methods of physical pressure on prisoners because, he asserts, "There was nary a vote in the Republican primary to be gained by opposing the waterboarding of swarthy Muslim men accused of terrorism. But Mr. McCain led the battle against Dick Cheney on torture, even though it cost him donations, votes and endorsements." Kristof maintained his unwavering admiration although he was forced to mention just a few paragraphs later that the very same John McCain dropped his opposition to waterboarding because "with the arrival of the primaries, he has moved to the right on social issues and pretended to be more conservative than he is." This argument is echoed by that of another liberal pundit, Jacob Weisberg, who, in a piece subtitled "Psst... He's Not Really a Conservative," instructs voters that when considering a vote for McCain, it is necessary to "discount his repositioning a bit."
In fact, it's going to take more than "a bit" to get McCain's positions anywhere near the values and policies Americans consistently say they want from their President, much less to where McCain-smitten pundits pretend they already are. As Kristof discovered when trying to paint his profile in courage, almost everything that caused so many pundits to lose their heads and hearts to McCain during his first campaign has been jettisoned in the interests of securing the nomination of a party that is demanding--and securing--his fealty to one extremist position after another. In the same column in which Kristof lauds the pro-torture McCain for opposing torture, for instance, he also lauds the anti-immigration candidate for being pro-immigration. He writes, "Then there's immigration. While other Republican candidates revved up the mobs by debating how high a limb is optimal for hanging illegal immigrants, he patiently explained that it's a complex problem with unsatisfying solutions, including creation of a path to citizenship for illegals." Yet McCain has jettisoned this position too. To be fair, Kristof may have been confused by the bewildering manner in which McCain repudiated himself. Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, McCain asserted that "on the issue of illegal immigration, a position which provoked the outspoken opposition of many conservatives, I stood my ground aware that my position would imperil my campaign." Having done so, however, he apparently decided that his integrity had overstayed its welcome, and in that same speech promised his erstwhile adversaries that "only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration." This directly contradicted the principle of the bill he wrote with Senator Ted Kennedy, which would have provided a path to citizenship for many of the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in America. Somehow McCain paid virtually no political price for this Olympian flip-flop. It wasn't merely that MSM pundits preferred to give him a pass; many refused to recognize it at all. Nearly a month after the CPAC speech, the Los Angeles Times wrote that McCain's advisers "believe his work on the controversial immigration legislation that included a path to citizenship for many of the nation's illegal immigrants will provide an inroad to Latino voters."
This "never mind" syndrome regarding McCain is pervasive. Take tax policy. The old McCain of "maverick" lore was lionized in the MSM five years ago for his refusal to support his party's misguided $1.35 trillion tax-cut package and cut dividends and capital gains taxes. McCain said, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief." In 2005 he was one of just three Senate Republicans to vote against additional tax cuts for corporate America; today the same senator who opposed these cuts thinks they should be extended through 2010. Conservatives had once again claimed this maverick's scalp. As Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, reportedly boasted, "It's a big flip-flop, but I'm happy that he's flopped."
In addition, McCain called for the repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax and the reduction of the corporate income tax rate from 35 to 25 percent. According to the calculations of the Tax Policy Center, the overall cost over a period of ten years would amount to $5.7 trillion in revenue, or more than three times the cost of the Bush cuts. Aside from the havoc these policies would wreak with an already out-of-control deficit, they would prove even more regressive than those instituted by the Bush Administration. At a moment when working people's wages and salaries make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product in more than sixty years, McCain's tax policies would, if enacted, deliver 58 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, compared with the current code, which tops out at a mere 31 percent of benefits going to the same fortunate few. Yet McCain is still accorded the "maverick" label. (After the primaries, McCain moderated his tax policies a bit and walked back a few provisions, including a new proposal to reduce, but not repeal, the AMT; his current plan would give 39.5 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent and would create $4.1 trillion in lost revenue over ten years. We note that President Bush enacted a much larger tax cut than what he campaigned on in 2000, so it is no simple task to predict what a President McCain would propose).
Flip-Flop Free Pass
It is a challenge to find an issue on which McCain has stood his ground in the face of opposition from his party's extremist establishment. "How about abortion?" you ask. Well, speaking to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle in August 1999, McCain explained, "Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America" to be subject to "illegal and dangerous operations." And McCain today? "I do not support Roe v. Wade--it should be overturned." McCain says he favors a rape and incest exception for abortion prohibitions, but his party's platform refuses to allow for any such exceptions. If the candidate plans on fighting to get this restrictive party plank changed, however, he has kept that information secret so far. What's more, McCain has voted for every one of Bush's judicial appointments, all of whom oppose a woman's right to choose. What about gay marriage? In 2006 McCain was one of only seven Republican senators to vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment; two years later he told Chris Matthews, "I think gay marriages should be allowed" when states decide to legalize gay unions. Today McCain not only opposes gay marriage but favors denying benefits to unmarried couples, period.
McCain's addiction to politically convenient flip-floppery is even evident regarding the issue with which his "maverick" reputation is most closely associated--political reform. Recall that much of McCain's reputation as a reformer derives from the partnership he forged with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold to try to reform the nation's campaign finance laws. He did so, he said at the time, out of a sense of remorse over his involvement with the "Keating Five," when he helped himself to free flights on Charles Keating's jets and asked regulators to go easy on the corrupt financier during a period when his wife happened to be Keating's investment partner. McCain received an Ethics Committee reprimand, and he has consistently pointed to his regret over his role in the scandal as his primary motivation for his commitment to the issue, over the objection of many in his party.
That's the theory anyway. And it is one so widely accepted by McCain's fans in the mainstream media that many do not feel an obligation to examine McCain's behavior anymore to determine whether he bothers adhering to the laws he wrote. Time managing editor Richard Stengel, for instance, explains that "McCain is so pure on this issue, ever since the Keating Five when he saw the light.... McCain has toed the line about lobbyists, about campaign fundraising."
In fact, McCain's devotion to remaining within his much-proclaimed ethical guidelines is a far murkier matter. It's not just his close friendship and professional relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, revealed by the New York Times, that causes so many titters--it's that McCain flew on the private jet of Iseman's client Lowell Paxson and repeatedly carried out legislative favors on his behalf. Paxson wasn't the only client of Iseman's who appeared to get special attention from McCain; the Times documented other instances where legislation introduced by McCain dovetailed with key priorities of other companies, in the telecommunications and cruise ship industries, represented by Iseman's firm--all of which contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his presidential campaign.
No less significant, candidate McCain has taken advantage of loopholes in the laws he has written and lax enforcement by an understaffed Federal Election Commission (FEC) to subvert the intended purposes of the laws. The old John McCain championed legislation that would require presidential candidates to pay the actual cost of flying on corporate jets and to pay charter rates when using such jets rather than cheaper first-class fares. The purpose was to try to reduce the power of jet-wielding lobbyists and enforce a sense of fairness. But how did McCain behave when the issue arose in his campaign? A New York Times investigation recently revealed that he availed himself of a jet owned by a company headed by his wife. He was able to do this without technically breaking the law only because the law makes a specific exception for planes owned by a candidate or his family (or by a privately held company they control). The FEC has sought to close this loophole, but its new rules have been prevented from going into effect, as the White House has refused--until recently--to appoint a sufficient number of commissioners to allow their approval. So while McCain may be technically within the letter of the outdated law, he is purposely undermining its spirit. What's more, these financial shenanigans are hardly consistent with the response he gave when asked by a reporter whether he planned to rely on his wife's wealth to help out with the campaign. "I have never thought about it," he told the Arizona Republic. "I would never do such a thing."
Such actions are of a piece with a campaign that is dominated by lobbyists to a degree unmatched by any other candidate for President this year. McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, co-founded a lobbying firm whose clients have included Verizon and SBC Telecommunications. His chief political adviser, Charles Black Jr., was until recently chair of one of Washington's most powerful private lobbies, BKSH and Associates, whose clients include AT&T, Alcoa, JPMorgan and US Airways--not to mention a string of dictators with shady human rights records, from Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. In addition, his top economic adviser, former Senator Phil Gramm--who wrote the McCain campaign's banking policy--was, until April 18, registered as a lobbyist for UBS, the international banking giant deeply involved in the subprime housing market crisis. And on down the line in the McCain campaign it goes, with almost all the top positions occupied by the very people whose influence he claims to want to curb. And yet, despite a series of forced resignations over embarrassing conflicts of interest, the media narrative continues untouched by truth. Writing in the Washington Post in May, longtime editor David Ignatius praised McCain because he "has actually fought the kind of bipartisan battles that Obama talks about--from campaign finance to climate change to rules against torture--and he has the political scars to prove it."
In early June, Times reporter Charlie Savage revealed another crucial McCain flip-flop: as recently as January, McCain said he opposed George W. Bush's unconstitutional wiretaps on American citizens, explaining, "I don't think the President has the right to disobey any law." But as with so many of McCain's more moderate positions, that was then. Today, according to his top adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain has decided that "neither the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001."
The pattern of media misrepresentation of McCain's record extends into the area of his alleged expertise, foreign and military policy, as well. Once again, the norm among those charged with interrogating the candidate and passing this information along to the public is simply to offer up a mixture of awe and praise at the candidate's prowess. NBC political director Chuck Todd does not think it matters much whether McCain bungles a question on foreign affairs because, as he explains, "He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it." And Fox News anchor Brit Hume was speaking for many when he announced, on behalf of himself and his colleagues, "We all" agree that McCain has understanding and knowledge of world affairs. Newsweek's Evan Thomas has gone so far as to grant McCain special permission to say things that mere mortals, or people bogged down by reality or fairness, cannot. "McCain has a license to use words that the rest of us could not.... I mean, he can be pretty out there, using words like 'surrender,' because who is really going to question John McCain?" he explains.
Given this all but unchallenged media narrative, it can be an astounding experience to scrutinize McCain's record of judgment in the harsh light of history. For instance, before the Bush Administration embarked on its disastrous course in Iraq, McCain promised that a successful US invasion would "serve as a counterpoint to the state-directed Arab media's distortion of the Palestinian conflict." He told CNN viewers on September 12, 2002, that he was "very certain that this military engagement will not be very difficult" and, a month later, that "success will be fairly easy." When asked by Chris Matthews in March 2003 whether the Iraqis would treat Americans as liberators, McCain answered, "Absolutely, absolutely." In light of these and other such predictions, it is difficult to imagine just what the editors of the Washington Post were thinking when they instructed readers, "Whatever your position on the war, then or now, Mr. McCain deserves credit for foresight and consistency about how the war should have been waged."
Perhaps these writers and editors were crediting McCain with views he never had and statements he never made. This turns out to be a common practice within the MSM. During a March 28 interview with Senator Chuck Hagel, Charlie Rose informed viewers that McCain "early on call[ed] for the firing of [former Defense] Secretary Rumsfeld." Two days earlier, on MSNBC Live, chief Washington correspondent and host Norah O'Donnell informed viewers that McCain had "called for Don Rumsfeld's resignation." Earlier in the month, on March 5, CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger told viewers of The Situation Room that "McCain has said over and over again, you know, 'I would have fired Donald Rumsfeld'.... He called for him to be fired while...in the Senate." Alas, though McCain did, like many conservatives, criticize Rumsfeld on occasion, he most definitely never called for the Defense Secretary to resign. Just hours before Rumsfeld's "resignation" was announced, in fact, McCain was asked by Fox News's Shepard Smith, "Does Donald Rumsfeld need to step down?" McCain's answer: it was "a decision to be made by the President."
When members of the media do report McCain's misstatements on foreign policy, they tend to discount them, apologize for them or explain what the senator undoubtedly "meant" to say. When, during a March 18 press conference with reporters in Amman, Jordan, McCain falsely insisted that Iranian operatives were "taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder termed the quote a "momentary confusion." Jake Tapper postulated "jet lag." But as the folks at thinkprogress.org noted at the time, during a short burst of media coverage over the controversy, McCain had made the same misstatement to nationally syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt in a March 17 interview, saying, "As you know, there are Al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they're moving back into Iraq." As media scholar Jay Rosen pointed out, McCain made this false claim four times, although Gen. David Petraeus had refuted it. (One Weekly Standard blogger insisted that McCain was correct, apparently overruling Petraeus, along with pretty much the rest of the world.)
And this was hardly the only case in which McCain's understanding of what was happening on the ground in Iraq was at odds with reality as the rest of the world understood it. Appearing on Fox News Sunday on April 6, he insisted that the violence in Basra had ended when Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr declared a cease-fire. This was, he argued, demonstrable evidence that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government was gaining ground. "I don't think Sadr would have declared the cease-fire if he thought he was winning. Most times in history, military engagements, the winning side doesn't declare the cease-fire. The second point is, overall, the Iraqi military performed pretty well.... The military is functioning very effectively," said McCain. The only problem with this assertion was that it contradicted just about every news report from the region; it was the Iranian government, together with members of Maliki's government, that pleaded with Sadr to cease military operations.
McCain also recently misstated the number of US troops in Iraq, saying on May 29 that "we have drawn down to pre-surge levels." The military, in fact, is two full brigades above the pre-surge levels. Recall that in 2003, then-Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean made a similar misstatement on Meet the Press about the number of active-duty US troops and was widely excoriated; a representative criticism came from MSNBC political analyst Mike Barnicle, who said Dean's interview "resembled the sound and the sight of a man crashing his candidacy into a bridge abutment." But McCain largely escaped such damnation.
Amazingly, while McCain claims to base his presidential campaign on his ability to secure "victory" for America in Iraq, reporters have so far paid precious little attention to the contradictions his statements and policies embody. Despite the desire of roughly 65 percent of Americans to withdraw from Iraq within the year, according to poll after poll, McCain believes it would be "reckless," "morally reprehensible" and an "unconscionable act of betrayal." His plan essentially amounts to much, much more of the same. He proposes yet another increase in the number of American troops on the ground, by extending combat tours and accelerating the deployment of troops. McCain also proposes yet another counterinsurgency strategy--instead of clearing areas and then retreating, he suggests keeping American forces in every cleared area. This plan, if successful, would demand more troops, and it is difficult to imagine just how he intends to recruit them in a period when all the military services are well below their goals for even routine recruitment and are being forced to take ever larger percentages of felons, non-high school grads, older and older soldiers, the mentally unstable and many in other categories who would not have been allowed to enlist in the past. (The United States currently has approximately 155,000 troops stationed in Iraq and another 35,000 or so in Afghanistan.)
Even in the unlikely event of the achievement of his goals for Iraq, McCain appears to have no intention of leaving that nation to develop on its own without permanent US military bases and a heavy footprint of US troops. (This is indeed the most charitable interpretation of McCain's comments that he would have no objection to US troops remaining in Iraq for "a hundred years.") Such a prolonged occupation would necessarily drain billions, if not trillions, from the US Treasury, but McCain offers no more guidance about the source of the funding for his expanded war plans than he does about its recruits. In February, he responded affirmatively when asked on ABC's This Week if he was a "'read my lips' candidate, no new taxes, no matter what." Pressed further by George Stephanopoulos, McCain insisted there were no circumstances under which he would raise taxes.
The Myth of the Bull Moose
With a lifetime score of 24 percent by the nonpartisan environmental group the League of Conservation Voters, McCain has an anti-environmental bent that stands in stark contrast to what Americans say they want from their next President. It's true that he has asserted the "facts of global warming demand our urgent attention," which is more than most in his party will admit. But his plans to address the crisis do not demonstrate much urgency. What's more, a cornerstone of McCain's environmental plan is the $3.7 billion of giveaways he would shower on the nuclear energy industry. The plan, while wildly expensive, is unlikely to reduce American carbon emissions significantly, since it envisions the building of just three new plants--plants that have proven nearly impossible to build anywhere in this country in recent decades. (As Christian Parenti recently reported in these pages, "a 2004 analysis in Science by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, of Princeton University's Carbon Mitigation Initiative, estimates that achieving just one-seventh of the carbon reductions necessary to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 500 parts per billion would require 'building about 700 new 1,000-megawatt nuclear plants around the world.'") And while nuclear power is extremely risky and expensive, McCain rules out subsidies for far cheaper and more environmentally friendly forms of energy. Nuclear energy aside, he explains, "I'm not one who believes that we need to subsidize things. The wind industry is doing fine, the solar industry is doing fine," he told an interviewer.
Then there are the so-called "social" issues. It's not just that McCain's strong antichoice position is out of step with that of most Americans. No less worrisome are his close ties to some of the most radical leaders of the Christian fundamentalist movement. McCain has repeatedly attempted to distance himself in a vague and imprecise fashion from the more extreme statements of the Catholic-hating, Hitler-admiring Pastor John Hagee, whose support he had previously worked so hard to earn. He was also forced to distance himself, quite belatedly, from the support he had so energetically pursued from the Rev. Rod Parsley, who has called hate crimes legislation a "deceptive ploy of [the] liberal, homosexual agenda." Parsley has also advocated criminal prosecution of adulterers, compared Planned Parenthood to the Nazis, and refers to Islam as an "anti-Christ religion" and to the Prophet Muhammad as "the mouthpiece of a conspiracy of spiritual evil." Before May, when McCain finally repudiated Parsley (together with Hagee), he told reporters that he felt "honored" to be associated with "one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide." The number of flip-flops--indeed, back flips--McCain has performed with regard to his party's intolerant Christian fundamentalist base resists easy calculation. Recall that in 2000, when faced with religious-right attacks on his campaign, McCain labeled Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" and "corrupting influences on religion and politics." This time around, he happily went to kiss the late Reverend Falwell's ring with a speech at Falwell's Liberty University.
Let's take a moment to sum up: the anti-torture candidate supports torture. The pro-immigration candidate opposes immigration. The candidate who opposes tax cuts for the rich supports them. The pro-campaign finance reform candidate has a campaign that is run almost exclusively by lobbyists, and exploits loopholes in the law to skirt spending limits--even the laws the candidate wrote. The candidate who opposes "agents of intolerance" in the Republican Party embraces them. The candidate with the foreign policy experience frequently confuses Sunnis and Shiites and misreads Iranian influence in the region, but is proposing permanent war. The candidate who claims to be a fiscal conservative wants to bust the budget. The candidate who claims to take global warming seriously does not want to take any serious action to address it.
In light of this evidence--as well as much, much more that space does not permit discussion of here--it is difficult not to conclude that the figure with whom so many mainstream journalists are infatuated is largely an invention of their collective imagination, one they often admit they love not because of what he says and does but because they--as with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin--can discern what lies in his heart. Recall that the liberal Nicholas Kristof professes to admire McCain because the candidate "truly has principles that he bends or breaks out of desperation and with distaste. That's preferable to politicians who are congenital invertebrates." This is a view echoed by New York Times Magazine political correspondent Matt Bai, who explains, "Like every politician I've known, McCain will sometimes surrender to the cheap ploy or prevarication when the moment demands it, but it is often with a smirk or a wince, some hard-to-miss signal that he knows he's up to no good."
Perhaps the most impressively convoluted defense of McCain comes from Slate editor Jacob Weisberg. In his April 2006 article "The Closet McCain," Weisberg attacks those of us on what he calls "the literal-minded left" for getting "McCain all wrong." His history, his voting record, his speeches, his promises constitute merely what Weisberg terms "a stratagem--the only one, in fact, that gives him a shot at surviving a Republican presidential primary." The real McCain, he promises, will come "roaring back" once he dispatches the distasteful process of "building bridges to Bush and the evangelicals." On what does Weisberg base his self-confidence? "If you watch closely, you still catch plenty of signals that the old new McCain isn't dead, just hiding out. He continues to take on the president and his own party where it matters to him, on the use of torture in the war on terrorism and on immigration, where he sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy to allow millions of illegal immigrants to become citizens."
Of course, McCain has disowned those positions together with almost everything else with which Weisberg credits him. But not to worry, Weisberg promises. "The Bull Moose has temporarily turned into a performing elephant. But the Moose will be back--around March 2008."
Here it is, summertime already, and we are still waiting. But be patient, dear reader. After all, when was the last time bigfoot reporters and pundits steered you wrong by advising you to ignore significant policy differences between two candidates and the two parties they represent and to trust instead in the steady "determination" and heartfelt "moderation" of a Republican candidate for President?
About Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow and "Altercation" weblogger for Media Matters for America, (formerly at MSNBC.com) in Washington, DC, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a history consultant to HBO Films.
About George Zornick
George Zornick is a New York City writer