No Surprise: McCain’s Attacks on GOP Undermines Leadership

Senator John McCain suspended his presidential campaign (in theory) last week in order to help fashion a financial rescue plan that could pass Congress and avert an economic meltdown. He focused his time and effort extensively, although not exclusively, on lining up support from House Republicans. That only one-third of them voted for the bailout yesterday is not wholly the fault of Senator McCain. Nor is it surprising that they did not choose to follow their party’s leader. After all, ever since the Republican convention, Senator McCain has been running away from his party, lambasting incumbents and generally making re-election for his fellow Republicans a lot tougher. Why would House Republicans follow someone like that?

Consider his view of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 by conservatives led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In a line from his acceptance speech on September 5th and repeated in last week’s presidential debate, Senator McCain said, “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.” The “us” he’s talking about includes the Republican members of Congress up for reelection this year. Having the leader of your party condemn you for being part of the “problem in Washington” is not likely to make it into many of their campaign brochures.

Then there’s his rants against earmarks. These are appropriation of federal dollars for specific purposes and are usually tacked onto bills without the formal review given other Congressional spending. As a result of this lack of scrutiny, they are often wasteful, used to reward supporters or in other ways bolster the reelection prospects of their sponsor. To say the  earmark system has been abused is an understatement.

Senator McCain sometimes appears to see earmarks as the root of all evil. In the first presidential debate, when pressed for a response to the economic crisis, Senator McCain turn the question into a diatribe against pork barrel spending more than once. His basic message is that earmarks corrupt politicians and anyone who engages in this practice — which is virtually all Members of Congress of both parties and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin — has sinned. Again, this is not a boon to the reelection campaign of many GOP incumbents.

Running against Washington is a time honored tradition in American politics. Senator McCain has made it into an art form. That’s fine for him. It’s tough for Republicans running for reelection.

Senator McCain can’t expect to hammer away at the corrupt nature of his fellow Republicans, even implicitly, and then expect them to follow him in supporting unpopular legislation. Leadership is more than a position. It’s built on trust, respect and common bonds, among other factors. It’s hard to trust someone who has made a career out of demeaning you. It’s tough to respect someone who puts you down. It’s difficult to bond with a leader who undermines you.

Senator McCain proclaims himself a Maverick. It is a title and position that sets him apart from other politicians. It also is an approach that, as his inability to lead House Republicans to support the financial bailout bill demonstrates, will make it harder for him to lead were he to become president.

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Can Palin Save McCain Campaign Again?

Hard to believe, but it’s only been a month since Senator John McCain selected Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Her annointment on August 29th was the “game changer” Senator McCain’s campaign hoped for, unifying the GOP base behind his candidacy, strengthening his maverick image and shifting the conversation away from Senator Barack Obama’s successful Democratic convention. The question now that Senator McCain’s candidacy seems to be floundering is whether Governor Palin can save his campaign again.

Things aren’t going well for Senator McCain of late. His antics concerning Congress’ rescue of Wall Street is widely seen as the political grandstanding that it was — not a good thing when you’re running as the anti-politician. While neither candidate scored a lot of points during Friday night’s debate, the general impression is that Senator Obama either held his own or “won,” whatever that means — not a good thing when the primary topic was foreign policy, Senator McCain’s strong point.

Worse, Governor Palin, who burst onto the national stage with a spectacular convention speech has proven to be an embarrassment.  Governor Palin’s interview with Katie Couric is widely regarded as a fiasco.

Her earlier interviews with a fawning Sean Hannity on Fox News and her initial foray in the public on ABC were not a lot a better. That the McCain campaign has kept Governor Palin in a reporter-free bubble for most of the month since her selection is both historic (and not in a good way) and insulting, both to her and the voters. The cumulative effect is that even conservative Republicans, including those who once supported her like Kathleen Parker of the National Review, are questioning whether Governor Palin should withdraw from the ticket for the “good of the party.”

Governor Palin’sproblems extend beyond poor media performances, however. She’s an anti-pork barrell politician who has requested more earmarks for her state on a per capita basis than any other Governor in the nation. Her record as Mayor and Governor includes a history of controversial personnel dismissals. And most recently, it appears the Mayor Palin used her position to obtain a zoning variance on the home she was selling. In just one month Governor Palin has gone from being her party’s savior and a national celebrity to being an election embarrassment and a national punch line.

Yet, there’s a potential new game changer coming up and the hero looks mighty familiar — it’s Governor Sarah Palin. Her opportunity to save the McCain campaign (again) comes on October 2nd when she will debate the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Joe Biden. The results of that encounter could change the course of the campaign. 

All Governor Palin has to do in the debate is hold her own. She doesn’t have to win. In fact, her previous dismal performances in unscripted settings has set the bar so low that merely showing up will count in her favor.

As the Obama campaign will remind us all again and again over the next few days, Governor Palin received generally high marks for her performance debates in previous campaigns. But those were for Governor and Leiutenent Governor of Alaska. The issues were simpler, narrower and provincial. The October 2nd debate is between two candidates for the Vice President of the United States. Governor Palin needs to demonstrate that were something to happen to a President McCain, she could lead the free world.

Yet to win the debate Governor Palin doesn’t have to prove she’s a domestic policy wonk. She just has to avoid embarassing gaffes. She doesn’t have to prove a master of foreign affairs, she just needs to show she understands America’s role in the world and supports Senator McCain’s approach to playing that role. She doesn’t need to prove she can save the nation’s economy, she just needs to prove her election won’t hurt it.

Governor Palin is more than capable of achieving these minimal goals. Andif she does, the press (and paid media) will tout her performance as a major victory signaling an extraordinary reversal of the campaign’s dynamics as momentum shifts to the Republican’s advantage.

In other words, an acceptable performance by Governor Palin in the October 2nd debate will save Senator McCain’s campaign yet gain, and this time irreversibly — or at least until October 7th when Senator McCain and Senator Obama debate again.

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Press Excluded from Biden Meeting: What Are They Thinking?

Woe hen Governor Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, engaged in her whirlwind tour of heads-of-state earlier this week, the McCain campaign sought to exclude reporters — but not photographers and television cameras — from being in the room. By doing so they expressed a total lack of confidence in Governor Palin to perform appropriately on the world stage, totally undermining any political benefit from the photo opportunity. Instead, they handed the Obama campaign a gift: it wasn’t the “left-wing media” or political opponents undermining their vice presidential candidate — it was Senator John McCain’s own campaign doing the damage.

One might expect Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to keep the story alive as long as possible, emphasizing the difference between Governor Palin and the Democratic party vice presidential nominee, Senator Joe Biden.  Senator Biden’s foreign policy credentials comes from long experience, proven expertise and bi-partisan respect, not meaningless proximity to a desolate portion of Russia.

One might expect the Obama campaign to emphasize this difference, but that’s not what’s happened. Instead, when Senator Biden held a meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashivli today in Wisconsin, reporters were excluded from the room — but not photographers and television cameras. The reason, according to the Obama campaign and as reported by the Associated Press, is that “It’s a private meeting between the senator and a head of state.”

So what? Last month Senator Bident and President Saakashvili met in Georgia in the aftermath of the Russion invasion of the country. Maybe the campaign was thinking this was simply a continuation of that meeting. Senator Biden is, after all, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This would take the meeting out of the realm of politics.

No way. Senator Biden is running to be Vice President of the United States. If this was a private “official” meeting, exclude the photographers along with the reporters. If there’s a photo opportunity, reporters should be allowed in the room as well. It’s all or nothing.

Instead, the Obamacampaign gives the McCain campaign a “get out of stupid decisions free” card. When criticized for excluding reporters from Governor Palin’s meetings with heads of state, all the McCain campaign needs to say is, “Senator Biden does it, too.” In one act, the Obama campaign turned a major snafu by the McCain campaign into just another example of business as usual.

A spokesman for the Obama campaign noted, accurately, that the “transparency between the Biden campaign and the Palin campaign is worlds apart.” Unlike Governor Palin, who campaigns in a bubble through which few unscripted moments are allowed to pass, Senator Biden is accessible to the public and the media. That speaks highly of Senator Obama’s selection of Senator Biden as his running mate. And it reflects poorly on Senator McCain’s selection of Governor Palin.

That may be true, but by imitating the McCain campaign’s handling of reporters during photo opportunities, the bama campaign diminishes the relevancy of that difference.

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McCain Should Debate

Senator John McCain says the financial crisis requires the candidates for president to “put country first” and postpone their debate, scheduled for tonight in Oxford, Mississippi. He’s wrong.

Putting country first means sharing your vision for America’s future with voters. What direction do you want to take this country? How do you see America’s place in the world? And if that’s not where we’re at now, how do we get there?

Putting country first is explaining how America should behave on the world stage. What should our priorities be? How should we work with allies? With foes?

Putting country first means explaining in clear, simple and concise language how the current economic crisis impacts our national security and what you intend to do about it. If you could lead your party, what would your solution to the economic crisis look like? Will your fellow Republicans in Congress follow you? If not, what do you do?

Putting country first means explaining why your running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, is qualified to step into your shoes and lead the free world on Day Two.  Putting your country first, and your campaign second, is answering that question without once pivoting to attack your opponent, Senator Barack Obama. The selection of the vice presidential nominee is a test of the presidential candidate’s judgement — and it’s not graded on a curve. You either believe Governor Palin has national policy bona fides or she doesn’t. Putting country first is answering with a simple yes or no, and then explaining the reasons for your answer. If you don’t believe your vice president needs to be fully qualified to be president on Day Two, then explain why you think the risks that creates if something happens to you is justified.

Putting country first means explaining what he would do concerning Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, Iran, Darfur, and on-and-on. Specifics would be nice. Putting country first is articulating a coherent philosophy, strategy, approach or doctrine that places your plans for handling these hot spots into a coherent, consistent context. 

Putting country first is about having a debate that is substantive, devoid of pre-packaged sound bite-sized attacks on your opponent or digressions into meaningless debate over inconsequential distractions like porcine make-up. Putting your country first is talking straight with the American people.

Of course, what’s required of Senator McCain is required of Senator Obama, too. Senator Obama should be required to answer these questions, along with addressing the experience gap between he and Senator McCain. If Senator Joe Biden is qualified to be president, in large part because of his experience on foreign policy, doesn’t that make Senator McCain qualified, too?

I understand the politics of what Senator McCain is doing. Hiding in Washington DC stirring up the already fragile politics surrounding the crafting of the government’s response to the economic crisis is a good way to overcome campaign challenges. That this tactic insults President George Bush by implying his administration is incapable of solving the problem without Senator McCain’s help is immaterial. It creates the impression Senator McCain is a hands-on, above-politics leader. That it interferes with negotiations among those members of Congress who matter is besides the point.

What’s ironic about all this is that Senator McCain has never been a leader on economic issues. If the crisis involved responding to another Russian intrusion into Georgia, having Senator McCain might be useful. He’s a proven record and substantial experience on those kinds of issues. But when it comes to helping resolve the mess in the nation’s securities, banking and financial markets he has been, and remains, a back-bencher.

Senator McCain’s Washington, D.C. photo opportunity is all about rebooting a campaign that had been floundering in the face of the meltdown on Wall Street. It’s a savvy move politically, and it might work. When my computer has a problem, the first thing I do is reboot it which often solves the problem.

But running for president isn’t the same as maintaining a PC. It’s about demonstrating the judgement and temperment required to lead the United States of America. It’s about leading the free world. One test of putting country first means forgoing what is politically savvy to what’s in the national interest. By undermining tonight’s debate and interfering with problem solving in Washington, Senator McCain fails that test.

McCain Campaign Undermining Palin: Is There a Reason?

Senator John McCain’s campaign is quick to attack anyone who dares questions Governor Sarah Palin’s qualifications — or the lack of them — to serve as Vice President and, potentially, President. Yet they seem intent to underscore the concern in ways that are insulting to the Governor.

Consider the latest fiasco. In an attempt to burnish her foreign policy credentials, Governor Palin is holding private meetings with foreign leaders today and tomorrow. For instance, today she’s met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Columbian President Alvaro Uribe today (she’s scheduled to meet with former Secretary of State henry Kissinger later, too, but he only sounds foreign). Tomorrow she and Senator McCain will meet with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukranian President Viktor Yuschenko.  Back on her own again, Governor Palin is expected to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talbani, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

This is an impressive group of leaders from countries in the thick of current international concern and crisis. The McCain campaign will no doubt trumpet the meetings as proof that the Alaskan Governor has the mettle to deal as an equal with world leaders. By attempting to keep reporters (but not cameras) away from Governor Palin during these meetings, however, the Republicans are undercutting their candidate’s credibility.

According to the Associated Press, the McCain campaign barred most reporters from her meeting with Afghan President Karzai. They invited cameras in, but even tried to deny entry to a television producer with a notepad (he was eventually allowed into the suite). The photographers and cameramen were ushered out so the Governor and President could have a private conversation, so what was the McCain campaign scared about?

Photo sessions are often used by reporters to ask questions of the participants. And the McCain campaign has kept Governor Palin under a carefully controlled, near total press embargo. She’s done two interviews, both relatively soft. (The one with Fox News was an embarrassing love fest with Sean Hannity fawning over the GOP running mate. ABC’s Charles Gibson didn’t even give Governor Palin a hard time for claiming foreign policy credibility because Russia is visible from parts of Alaska).

In the roughly four weeks since being selected as Senator McCain’s running mate, those are the only two press interviews Governor Palin has given. There’s been no press conferences. No quick question and answer sessions before or after her speeches. No questioning permitted during photo opportunities like those taking place today and tomorrow.

It’s insulting. It’s insulting, and bordering on sexist, because it implies Governor Palin is unable to handle herself in front of the big, mean media crowd. It’s insulting to the American people because this woman is seeking the second highest office in the land. We deserve to hear her speak without a script, without the interference of her handlers, and with those, unlike Mr. Hannity, who want to learn about her political philosophy and beliefs, not just marvel at how fresh and different a politician she is. Who knows, maybe she’d talk to someone who would challenge her on supporting the Bridge to Nowhere and the pork barrell financed Bridge to Wasilla?

The McCain campaign is trying to have it both ways. But if Governor Palin is qualified to be Vice President, she’s qualified to meet the press. If she’s not qualified to be Vice President, then Senator McCain needs to explain why he selected her. The McCain campaign’s actions speak louder than their words (or their photo opportunities). They need to demonstrate that Governor Palin can not only meet with friendly world leaders, but that she can handle a sometimes hostile national press.

By preventing Governor Palin from taking questions from the media, the McCain campaign is communicating that it doesn’t believe she is up to the job she’s been nominated to fill.

McCain Scapegoating SEC Chair

My what a difference a financial meltdown can make when you’re running for president. Senator John McCain has long billed himself as against government regulation. And he’s got the voting record to prove it. For example, the Washington Post reports that 10 years ago “Senator McCain embraced legislation to broadly deregulate the banking and insurance industries, helping to sweep aside a thicket of rules established over decades in favor of a less restricted financial marketplace that proponents said would result in greater economic growth.” Well it did that. But it also set the stage for the lax oversight that is partially responsible for the nation’s current economic travails. 

But the formerly straight-talking Senator McCain doesn’t want to take responsibility for his past, not when his future ambitions are at stake. So today he declared, again according to the Washington Post, “Government has a clear responsibility to act in defense of the public interest, and that’s exactly what I intend to do. In my administration, we’re going to hold people on Wall Street responsible. And we’re going to enact and enforce reforms to make sure that these outrages never happen in the first place.”

Senator McCain holds the regulators he voted to hold back for contributing to Wall Street financial problems. And he’s found his scapegoat, former Representative Christopher Cox, now the Chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. The Associated Press reports Senator McCain as declaring, “The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and, in my view, has betrayed the public’s trust. If I were president today, I would fire him.”

So, let me get this straight. Senator McCain supports less regulation of Wall Street, but now wants to fire the Chair of the SEC for failing to enforce the regulations already in place. Yet if Senator McCain was President McCain he (until this week) had campaigned on a platform of less regulation, which is what the SEC Chair was apparently doing. So Senator McCain wants to fire Chairman Cox for behaving in the way Senator McCain would want him to behave. An interesting approach.

Senator McCain seems to believe that singling out just one of the many regulators that were unable to prevent the current fiscal mess will distract voters from his record of more than two decades in the Washington, including several years as Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. But scapegoating is not an economic policy nor is it leadership. It’s merely an obvious attempt to divert attention from his record.

It will be interesting to watch how the campaigns approach the economy over the next several days until the September 26th debate between the candidates. Senator McCain will be seeking to back track from his “the fundamentals of the economy are sound” mantra by railing against the impact of the deregulation he voted for, the failure of the regulators he voted for (most of the regulators appointed by the President are subject to the consent of the United States Senate), and the policies of the Republican administration he supports and praises. In short, he’ll be striving to avoid becoming known as “Senator John McHoover.” 

Senator Barack Obama, meanwhile, will be trying to prove that his relative lack of experience isn’t as important as his judgement. He is scheduled to deliver a major policy address in Florida on Friday outlining his economic recovery plan.

This is a once-in-a-campaign opportunity for Senator Obama. His The challenge will be to clearly, passionately and memorably define an economic philosophy and policy direction that captures the imagination of voters. More importantly, it has to stick with voters and define the kind of president Senator Obama will be. If he succeeds the speech will be remembered as the turning point in the campaign. If he fails, it will be remembered as one of the most spectacular missed opportunities in recent political history.

Palin Needs to Come Clean on Earmarks

The public vetting of Governor Sarah Palin raises questions about the private vetting of her by the campaign of Republican nominee Senator John McCain. Every few days something new emerges that raises questions about her qualification to be Vice President of the United States. Some of this is to be expected. Senator McCain has been vetted through two competitive presidential elections (not to mention four statewide campaigns in Arizona). The qualifications of his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, has been debated and explored thoroughly since he announced his candidacy 19 months ago (in addition to his single statewide campaign in Illinois). Senator Obama’s running mate, Senator Joe Biden, has run for president twice and first ran statewide in Delaware in 1972. Governor Palin’s vetting, instead of taking months, has needed to be crammed into the roughly 60 days between Senator McCain selecting her as his running mate and the November 4th election. So the intensity of her public vetting is not surprising.

What’s dismaying is that the in the frenzy to learn more about the latest political celebrity factual nuggets are being thrown together with falsehoods and irrelevant sideshows. Her five-month old son is hers. That her 17-year old daughter is pregnant is nobody’s business but the family’s. Get over it.

What matters is whether she’s qualified to be a heart beat from the oval office. That means the focus should be on her experience, her integrity and her abilities. Much has been written about her lack of experience. Much has been written about her amazing political abilities and some about her executive experience. What’s likely to take the luster off her candidacy, however, is what’s emerging about her honesty.

Take the bridges. At least two bridges were earmarked for taxpayer dollars in Alaska. Governor Palin supported the “Bridge to Nowhere” until it proved politically unpopular. It’s unclear whether she said “No thanks” before Congress said “Never mind,” but she definitely turned against that bridge only after it was doomed.

Then there’s the “other” bridge. This one, the “Bridge to Wasilla,” officially known as “Don Young’s Way” in honor of the Alaskan Congressman who successfully obtained the earmark. According to the Associated Press, Governor Palin has been supportive of this bridge linking her home town to Anchorage. To be fair, the article notes that she’s “called for a review of the bridge’s financing plans and raised concerns about its financial risks for the state.” But that’s a far cry from opposing it as Senator McCain did, calling it a “monstrosity” that was “terrifying in its fiscal consequences.”

Governor Palin no doubt used the informed those vetting her on behalf of Senator McCain that she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere. But did she tell them she supported it first? Did she tell them she sees the Bridge to Wasilla as something different?

Then there’s the stunning lack of knowledge Senator McCain’s earmark addiction as Governor. Appearing on ABC’s “The View,” Senator McCain claimed Governor Palin had sought no earmarks from Washington since becoming Governor. The fact is that Governor Palin has requested $198 million in earmarks for 2009 and as recently as February of this year. She sought $256 million of these apparently tainted dollars in her first year as Governor, last year. The reality is, no state benefits as much as Alaska from earmarks. Senator McCain rails against the $936 million in earmarks requested by Senator Obama in his first two years in Washington (he asked for no earmarks this year), yet Alaska receives more of these dollars on a per capita basis than any other state — twice as much as the second ranking state according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Did she simply not tell the McCain vetters about this? Did she tell them about her article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on March 5, 2008 in which she writes, “I am not among those who have said ‘earmarks are nothing more than pork projects being shoveled home by an overeager congressional delegation.'” And “My role at the federal level is simply to submit the most well-conceived earmark requests we can.” And “The federal budget, in its various manifestations, is incredibly important to us (Alaska), and congressional earmarks are one aspect of this relationship.”

Does any of this sound like the crusader against earmarks Senator McCain describes? Did his campaign know she supports “reasonable” earmarks?

Governor Palin has stood by while Senator McCain say she’ll help eradicate earmarks. OK, the first time she let it pass. There was a lot going on. But the second time? The sixth time? The tenth time? 

And did Senator McCain really believe she had sought no earmarks as Governor? If so, who told him so?

Integrity is not just about refraining from making outright lies. It’s also about refusing to be silent in the face of lies — or, to be charitable, misinformation. Governor Palin lets Senator McCain and his campaign continue to misrepresent her position in support of earmarks. She consistently misrepresents her position on earmarks in her own speeches. By doing so, Governor Palin is demonstrating a lack of integrity that raises questions about her qualifications to be Vice President.

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