McCain the Maverick or McCain the Hypocrite. Whose in Charge?

“History is made at night. Character is what you are in the dark.” So says Lord John Whorfin in the 1984 movie Buckaroo Banzai. But he may as well have been talking about the presidential election in 2008 and specifically about Senator John McCain.

Senator McCain has proven the mettle of his character in the darkest of places, the Hanoi Hilton in the 1970s. He has repeatedly demonstrated that character in his political career standing up to the status quo, taking on tough issues and reaching across party lines. He has earned the right to call himself a maverick.

Yet something happens to Senator McCain when he runs for president. The principles and stright talk he claims to possess take on a situational, one might say hypocritical cast. As a Senator he opposed President George Bush’s tax cuts as inappropriate and political; he now supports them. As a Senator he introduced bi-partisan immigration reform; he now opposes his own legislation.

His performance as a candidate has been erratic, too. During the summer he attacked his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, unceasingly and vigorously as too inexperienced to be president. Then he nominates someone, Governor Sarah Palin, with even less experience to be his own running mate. When asked about the economy during the first presidential debate, Senator McCain retreated to diatribes against earmarks as if cutting the one percent of the budget they account for would stop the current turmoil in the markets. Yet Alaska, of which his running mate is Governor, receives more earmarks on a per capita basis than any other state.

What all this means is that Senator McCain is capable of being a Maverick or a Hypocrite. And which shows up tends to depend on the play of shadow and light in his political world. 

The darkest moment of his 2000 campaign for the presidency was in South Carolina and he chose to take a position on the Confederate flag that. he later admitted, was a “sacrifice of principle for personal ambition.”

To describe the current status of the McCain campaign as dark is an understatement. He’s trailing in the polls (a fact that, as I’ve written before, should be discounted). He has given up on winning in Michigan, a state once considered core to his electoral college strategy. His frantic and frenetic response to the economic meltdown undermined his stature as a mature leader during crisis. Senator Obama’s debate performance underscored his readiness to be Commander-in-Chief. And Governor Palin’s inept and embarrassing performance in interviews with Katie Couric made clear her selection as the vice presidential nominee was all about putting politics before country. In fact, the only bright spot for Senator McCain in the past week was that Governor Palin exceeded expectations in her debate against Senator Joe Biden.

Senator McCain could have responded to this situation in a variety of ways. He could have re-launched the Straight Talk Express and done a tour of the country talking about the economy. He could have challenged Senator Obama to additional debates to focus exclusively on the economy — he could have even offered to pay for the air time if the networks wouldn’t cover the discussion for free. He could have convened a conference of his top financial advisors, instructed them to develop a regulatory restructuring plan and present it to him in three weeks. He could have, in short, demonstrated the character of a maverick who stands up to problems.

Or Senator McCain could demonstrate the character of a hypocritical politician who, bereft of ideas, slings mud. Guess who showed up?

The McCain campaign is proclaiming it’s intent to question Senator Obama’s character, honesty and integrity. Governor Palin is accusing Senator Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” based on a twisted interpretation of a New York Times article. Senator McCain, who claims to never have lied, has repeated charges against Senator Obama that have been demonstrated to be false.

Attacking the record — and yes, the associations — of your opponent can be done in an honest and appropriate way. It requires strict adherence to the facts and a tenor that treats the charges seriously. Then there’s the the desperation approach where the goal is quantity, not quality. There’s a line between running a tough campaign and mud slinging. Where you stand relative to that line says a lot about your character.

Intead of addressing the challenges facing America at home and abroad, Senator McCain has embraced the Swift Boat tactics he once condemned. Instead of a responsible discussion of Senator Obama’s background and alliances, he’s slinging as much mud as possible.

If character is what you are in the dark, then Senator McCain’s character, at this time during this campaign, is hypocritical. Maybe when he’s back in the Senate we’ll see the maverick we once admired.

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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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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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