Citizen McCain

Senator McCain’s staff shakeup could not have come at a better time.  Hopefully it will address what many feel is the Achilles heel of the campaign — the failure not just to forge a coherent, compelling theme for his candidacy, but equally the repeated policy contradictions that, if allowed to continue, will fatally muddle his  chances of becoming president. 

Exhibit A of inconsistency is his approach to energy and climate change. As the co-sponsor of one of the leading climate bills, and as an environmental supporter generally, Senator McCain is in an ideal position to nullify the Democratic Party’s traditional hold on the environment as a potent electoral issue. While in the past (and especially during times of economic turmoil) the environment has rarely ranked as highly as the economy as an electoral issue, the interrelationship of climate change with energy security and high oil and food prices provides a unique opportunity for Senator McCain to break new ground. But he has botched the opportunity so far. 

On one side of the issue, he has made an important demonstration of his support for comprehensive climate legislation in the form of what has become known as "cap and trade."  In addition to establishing his environmental credentials, support for some semblance of climate change legislation has enabled Senator McCain to distance himself from President Bush, who is a significant political liability, on an important set of issues. Although Senate Democrats could not muster enough votes to break a filibuster on the leading cap and trade climate initiative in the Senate — the Lieberman-Warner bill — this legislation is far from dead and will return in some form in the coming years. Yet Senator McCain apparently did not participate at all in the debate.  Instead, during that time frame, he campaigned for offshore drilling and joined Hillary Clinton in proposing a gas tax holiday, both long on populism but short on reality. 

Both of these initiatives significantly and perhaps even fundamentally undercut his climate position, for they call for the use of more oil without any offsetting program of conservation and alternative fuels development. Senator McCain has also at times supported and opposed ethanol, and this ambivalence, too, undermines his position. Indeed, he was at the forefront of a number of senators signing a letter to EPA to roll back parts of the 2007 Energy Bill signed just last December to reduce transport dependency on oil 20% by 2020. This legislation is probably the world’s most aggressive transport climate policy, so Senator McCain’s backtracking is hard to explain to the average American, and opens him to criticisms of being a flip-flopper. 

There are arguments to be made about first generation bio-fuels derived from corn and how fast we can move to the second generation that does not compete with food production. But Senator McCain has not engaged in this debate, even though Senator Obama’s close association with the ethanol industry (much of it based in Illinois) provides an elegant contrast, if such a contrast were desired. The public would benefit from the debate as a general matter, and one hopes the debate is at some point engaged. 

There are other potential inconsistencies. Senator McCain has hit Russia pretty hard, suggesting, for example, that it should be dropped from the G-8. At the same time, he has spoken forcefully for the need to engage Russia directly on the question of arms control in a high level dialogue. Now, the G-8, an economic forum, is not necessarily the right place to talk about nuclear issues, but given the world’s energy shortages it is not necessarily the wrong place either. In any event, the two positions have not been reconciled. 

For years, Senator McCain has been regarded as one of the most mainstream, even maverick, Republicans in the Senate.  Yet as the election progresses, he denies any attraction to progressive ideals.  He’s afraid of losing the conservative vote, but each time he contradicts his Senate voting record, all of his votes — conservative and liberal — are jeopardized. 

However, simply because McCain’s campaign tactics are presently losing the battle doesn’t mean that the ultimate outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion.  Sen. Obama’s issue stances and inexperience create significant problems for him despite his advanced campaign tactics.  Let’s think back to 2000 where President Bush commanded a much better campaign than his opponent, former Vice President Al Gore.  Despite his superior plan and execution, Bush still lost the popular vote.   

One senses from time to time that Senator McCain is running his campaign like a Senate office, falling into the habit of taking multiple positions that come back to haunt any senator who seeks the presidency.  We saw the consequences of this most recently with the Bush campaign’s ability to exploit Senator Kerry’s changing stance on the Iraq war. As President Bush also demonstrated, in repeating his core themes despite the growing detractors, a successful presidency is not achieved by sending mixed messages. And one certainly can’t expect to get to the White House by campaigning that way.