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'Straight Talk Express' Often Reverses Course

by Thomas F. Schaller

Two weeks ago, I suggested that we ought to be able to conduct a presidential election without creating superficial and misleading personal caricatures of the nominees -- that it was sufficient to make a case for or against Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama based solely on their records and their proposals. Today, I offer a strong case against Mr. McCain on strictly policy terms.The foundation of that case rests on a single, damning observation courtesy of Cliff Schecter in his new book, The Real McCain: For the sake of political-electoral expediency, the Arizona senator has taken or changed far too many of his positions. On a range of issues -- including President Bush's tax cuts, immigration, display of the Confederate flag and campaign finance reform, his signature issue -- Mr. McCain has significantly altered if not outright reversed earlier stances.

Even on the treatment of terrorist suspects held by the military, the issue on which one might think he would be vigilant, Mr. McCain voted in 2006 in favor of the Military Commissions Act, which protected government interrogators from possible war crimes charges.

"A conditional friend to conservatives, an appealing maverick to independents, and a noxious Bush apologist to Democrats, McCain is a unique blend of allegiances and enmities in American politics," writes Mr. Schecter. "What conservatives misread as disloyalty to the cause isn't that at all; what moderates and independents value of McCain's free thinking isn't that, either."

"That," Mr. Schecter explains, is a policy record consistent only in its inconsistency, and one carefully hidden behind the facade of the independent-thinking reformer's image Mr. McCain prefers to project.

Mr. Schecter finished the book this year, but one need not retrace ground even that far back to find ample evidence of his conclusions about the Republican nominee's inability to "straight talk." In fact, in just the past month, Mr. McCain has demonstrated plenty of what rightly should be called "funny talk."

Item: During his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last month, Mr. McCain told Ms. DeGeneres he did not support the idea of gay couples being able to marry but he did endorse allowing them to at least enter into "legal contracts" with each other for such things as insurance. Funny that, because Mr. McCain supported a 2006 amendment to his home state's constitution that would ban any legal agreements for gay partners, including insurance.

Item: Two weeks ago, Mr. McCain said, "I am not for privatizing Social Security. I never have been. I never will be." Funny that categorical claim, too, because according to a Wall Street Journal story March 3, here's what Mr. McCain said just three months ago: "As part of Social Security reform, I believe that private savings accounts are a part of it - along the lines of what President Bush proposed."

Item: As reporter Charlie Savage of The New York Times reported June 6, Mr. McCain now says he believes President Bush's phone wiretapping program was legal. Funny that, because in an interview just six months ago with the Boston Globe, notes Mr. Savage, the senator "strongly suggested" that he would be bound to obey statutes such as the one President Bush violated.

Item: Mr. McCain called this week for an end to the federal ban on offshore oil drilling, which is also funny because it reverses a position he took in the 2000 election and calls into question his avowed stance as an environmental advocate.

That's four reversals in the past four weeks. Throw in his transparent backtracking during the Republican primary on illegal immigration and his 180-degree turn on the Bush tax cuts, and it's difficult not to conclude that foolish inconsistencies have been the hobgoblins of Mr. McCain's candidacy.

I spoke briefly with Mr. Schecter on Sunday and asked him about the GOP nominee's changing pronouncements.

"I'm not surprised that Senator McCain continues to blithely change his stances on the defining issues of our day," Mr. Schecter told me. "That's the story of his entire political career, and the media have always let him get away with it. Yet it's starting to catch up with him, as evidenced by a new Pew Research Center poll that shows fewer people view him as a 'maverick,' 'independent' or a 'reformer.'"

In 2004, Republicans characterized Democrat John Kerry as somebody who changed positions - a candidate with no policy core, no ideological mooring. This time around, with John McCain at the head of their ticket, it appears that the flip-flop is on the other partisan foot.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun.

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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