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McCain's Not-so-Straight Talk Express


I love the McCain campaign's way of confronting reality: ignore it and make up whatever seems most expeditious, truth be damned. It avoids having to deal with pesky little annoyances like facts. A perfect example is the ad they put up on the Wall Street Journal's website Friday night, several hours BEFORE the first presidential debate, proclaiming, alongside a smiling John McCain, "McCain Wins Debate." "McCain won the debate -- hands down," Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, crowed in the ad. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain candidate should have bothered traveling to Mississippi. Millions of us needn't have wasted an hour and a half of our time listening to the two candidates discuss the economy and foreign policy.

It must be great to be in such total control, or at least to think that you are. Maybe that's why McCain suggested canceling the debate. Not because he needed to be in Washington to blow up the bailout negotiations, but because he knew that he had won the debate before it had even started. (The ad was quickly taken down when it was brought to the WSJ's attention, but it was fun while it lasted.)

The McCain campaign's strategy, adapted from the Karl Rove playbook (who was far better at it than Steve Schmidt, Davis, Nicole Wallace, Tucker Bounds, et al.), insults our intelligence. The idea is to repeat inaccuracies (ok, lies) again, and again, and again, with the expectation that enough voters will eventually believe them to be true because they've heard them so often.

We all know, for instance, that Governor Sarah Palin was for the bridge to Nowhere (actually, Gravina Island, Alaska, population 50) before she was against it, and that she only said "thanks but no thanks" after Congress had already effectively killed this particular extravagance. When it appeared that her image as a fiscal reformer might be in doubt, McCain told Barbara Walters categorically on The View that Palin never asked for any dreaded earmarks while Governor of Alaska ("No, not as governor she didn't"), even though she had in fact requested $198 million in earmarks this year, and $256 million worth the year before. The projects she wanted to have federally funded included fighting obesity in Alaska ($487,000) and developing recreational trails ($4 million). Of course, Sarah Palin, as Governor, had every right to ask for these funds for her state. The problem is the McCain campaign's deliberate and consistent attempt to mischaracterize her record to fit their mythology of her as a pork-killing anti-earmark McCain clone.

Or how about the now notorious McCain ad accusing Senator Obama of wanting to provide "comprehensive sex education" to kindergarteners, when the Illinois State Senate bill in question was actually intended to protect children from sexual predators? Somehow, the McCain flacks forgot to mention this minor fact. Obama supported this bill in committee (it was never actually enacted) because, as he explained during his 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois, "I have a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old daughter, and one of the things my wife and I talked to our daughter about is the possibility of somebody touching them inappropriately, and what that might mean. And that was included specifically in the law, so that kindergarteners are able to exercise some possible protection against abuse, because I have family members as well as friends who suffered abuse at that age."

Furthermore, as the New York Times has pointed out, the same McCain ad's claim that this bill constituted Obama's only accomplishment in the education arena failed to mention failed to mention that "Obama not only helped administer a $49 million education project in Chicago in the 1990s, but also sponsored or co-sponsored measures that increased the number of charter schools in Illinois, and expanded federal grants to summer school programs and to historically black colleges."

The difference between 2008 and 2004, when the Republicans successfully used their smear-laden tactics against John Kerry, is that this time, the misrepresentations are so blatant and clumsy as to be counterproductive. Republicans should have known they're in serious trouble when Karl Rove himself said on Fox News earlier this month that McCain and his campaign had "gone one step too far, attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test."

Perhaps the real reason why McCain was so crotchety during Friday night's debate was that he himself realizes that his campaign's tactics aren't working. Unlike Obama who has a consistent message and conveys a reassuring competence, McCain has been erratic, jumping inconsistently from position to position (one moment "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," the next there's a crisis for which his proposed solution is a commission), almost like an uncontrolled, untamed horse. Wait, isn't that the precise definition of a maverick? "I have a long record and the American people know me very well and that is independent and a maverick of the Senate," McCain said during the debate, "and I'm happy to say that I've got a partner that's a good maverick along with me now."

With the U.S. economy in shambles and our country, indeed the world, facing critical international challenges of ever increasing complexity, the last thing we need is an impulsive maverick with his finger on the proverbial button. Or perhaps the last thing we need is two mavericks, one erratic and the other clueless, in control of our future.

Menachem Rosensaft is a lawyer in New York City