John McCain made his bus famous in 2000 during his first run for president, calling it the “Straight Talk Express.” In 2008, he’s moved up to a fancy, configured jet, painting its sides with the same slogan. The trouble is, when you examine McCain’s polices and public utterances you will find very little resembling straight talk. A substantive reading of his record leads to one clear conclusion: The John McCain of 2000 would not vote for the John McCain of 2008.
The John McCain of 2000 stood up to the George W. Bush faction of the GOP, expressing and fighting for his different beliefs. Sadly, the John McCain of 2008 shamelessly panders to that Bush base, attempting to gain the support of the establishment that he previously railed against. Radical figures that McCain wouldn’t have touched in 2000 are sought after for their endorsements. Let’s be real: Would the John McCain of 2000 ever solicit the support of someone like the Revs. John Hagee or Rod Parsley? Members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group McCain vehemently decried in 2004, currently serve as top surrogates to bash fellow veterans who support Obama. Lobbyists and Bush fundraisers he denounced eight years ago are now valued donors.
McCain’s shifting of his stances isn’t just the process of evolution or changing with the times; it is a wholesale pandering, making substantive changes in a transparent effort to garner votes. McCain’s statements on any given issue are shaped by who happens to be sitting in the audience. In front of conservatives, McCain pledges to appoint radical judges like Justice Samuel Alito to the courts. But according to Politico reporter Ben Smith, while wooing former Clinton supporters, McCain suggested he would appoint more moderate judges, emphasizing his votes to confirm Clinton nominees Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. At town halls, McCain emphasizes enforcement to deal with illegal immigration, while in closed-door meetings with Hispanic leaders he promises if elected president to overhaul federal immigration laws. This kind of blatant pandering led conservative Hispanic leader Rosanna Pulido to complain, “He’s one John McCain in front of white Republicans. And he’s a different John McCain in front of Hispanics.”
On gun control, where ironically McCain has criticized Obama for shifting his position, McCain has radically altered his own to get in line with the NRA. In 1999, McCain supported banning certain assault weapons and “Saturday night specials,” as well as requiring safety locks and background checks at gun shows. He co-sponsored the McCain-Lieberman Gun Show Bill of 2003, which would have closed the gun-show loophole. Through 2004, he had a C+ rating from the NRA, who described McCain as their “Judas goat — leading the sheep to slaughter,” and as “one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment.” Yet by 2007, his position had changed again. After the Virginia Tech massacre, McCain said he believed in “no gun control.” McCain’s new position as a gun rights advocate will reap great financial benefits: The NRA has pledged to spend $40 million on this year’s campaign, including at least $15 million to smear Obama.
McCain’s radically changed position on taxes is probably the most outrageous example of not adhering to straight talk. He is seeking to curry the favor of people such as Grover Norquist (one of his oldest foes in Washington), who is lucky he’s not in jail for helping launder money for Jack Abramoff. In 2001, McCain was one of only two Republicans to vote against President Bush’s tax cuts, saying he could not “in good conscience” vote for them. He argued in a speech on the Senate floor that the bill gave “generous tax relief to the wealthiest individuals of our country at the expense of lower- and middle-income American taxpayers.”
However, in 2006 McCain’s concerns with the Bush tax cuts has seemingly vanished, as he voted to extend tax cuts that would have expired before 2010. During the campaign, he pledged to permanently extend the rest of the cuts, leading Norquist to note that McCain had “moved to a position where we are very comfortable.’’
It’s hard to imagine someone changing positions on so many fundamental issues as McCain. The list goes on and on. McCain’s flip-flops on Social Security, oil drilling, campaign financing, the use of torture, the GI Bill, immigration, abortion, and appeasing the religious right, are serious examples of a man pandering, not progressing.
But the largest difference between the McCain of 2000 and the McCain of 2008 is the philosophical approach to the election. John McCain in 2000 ran not just to win, but to make a broader point that the system in Washington was broken and needed to be changed. Consider this quote: “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.” My, how times change. The McCain of 2008 is running for one reason: to get himself elected. If that means promising to perpetuate the broken system in Washington and continue the failed policies of George W. Bush, so be it, as long as it leads to McCain winning on Election Day. This ultimate difference between the two McCains is best illustrated by early American statesman Henry Clay’s famous declaration, “I’d rather be right than be president.”
John McCain in 2000 probably would have agreed with that statement. Would the John McCain of 2008?
But another question is whether John McCain can pass the character test. So far, he’s failing.
What? A bona fide war hero and POW survivor is being questioned about character?
Well, yes. It’s time that McCain’s acolytes and the mainstream media stopped assuming that his
extraordinary military service nearly 40 years ago gives him immunity to questions about being President today in a different century.
When he repeatedly says that Obama for political reasons “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign,” he’s imputing a political motive than he can’t know, doesn’t know, and is contradicted by the available evidence.
Bluntly, what McCain is doing is a familiar trope — from tail gunner Joe to Richard Nixon’s “positive polarization” to Bush 41’s campaigning in flag factories against a guy with a foreign-sounding last name to Bush 43’s “with us or with the terrorists” rhetoric after 9/11. Divide and conquer.
This is especially unconvincing since Obama’s policies are essentially the same as those held by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission, nearly all Senate Democrats — and McCain himself, who told Wolf Blitzer that Obama’s 16-month withdrawl timeline might be acceptable.
Do Senators Clinton, Biden, Hagel, Kennedy etc. too want America to lose a war, or do they simply disagree with McCain’s judgment?
Second, this line of personal attack is one of numerous examples of McCain’s Zig-Zag Express. When it comes to flip-flopping, McCain recently has made John Kerry (falsely accused of this) look like the Rock of Gibraltar.
For years MCain impressively built up his popular “maverick” brand, attacking the far right on a variety of issues. But in frequent 180 degree turns, now he instead supports tax cuts for the rich, panders to the religious right, opposes affirmative action and votes against anti-torture rules for the CIA. Exactly who is shifting positions for political reasons?
McCain said that he wanted to run a “civil campaign” free of personal attacks. Now he all but accuses Obama of being unpatriotic, nearly treasonous. His recent ad asserting that Obama refused to visit troops because he couldn’t bring cameras along and chose to go to the gym instead is, well, a lie. Factcheck.org, the Washington Post and the New York Times have analyzed the facts and said as much. But it plays into McCain’s strategy that he’s a “real American President,” as one of his first ads unsubtly put it.
Normally, when a Republican presidential candidate wants to “swift boat” an opponent, he winks at third party groups to do it for him — like the ads spotlighting Willie Horton in 1988 (which we now know that Bush 41’s Lee Atwater helped coordinate) or those by veterans falsely attacking Kerry’s war record, which McCain rightly and courageously condemned. Yet here it’s McCain himself who is personally swift-boating Obama in a dishonorable and desperate attempt to trip up the leading candidate. He’s engaging in the tactics that he deplored.
Recently, McCain has taken to avoiding reporters. They have to shout questions like Sam Donaldson of ABC did back in the Reagan era. Reagan answered only questions he wanted to hear.
Worse, McCain appears to be listening now to associates of Rove. Nothing is too slimy for this crowd to use in a close campaign as this one promises to be in November.
Obama has been quick to respond so far to McCain’s attacks. He and his staff have learned that Al Gore and John Kerry paid the price of defeat by dilly-dallying on Rove-directed assaults.
The McCain of 2000 has allowed himself to be morphed into an attack dog in 2008. The earlier candidate was an admirable challenger. The McCain of 2008 is just another say-anything, do-anything-to-win politician.
Watching McCain’s devolution from a man of integrity and courage in the Hanoi Hilton and his long and harsh imprisonment to the embarassing pandering politician he is today does not make for a pretty picture.