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The Second Debate Revealed a Fatal Flaw in McCain's Candidacy

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If an extraterrestrial beamed down to Earth at 8:59 p.m. Eastern time last night and watched the second presidential debate, I'm sure he would have thought John McCain had some good ideas. Sure, he would have thought that McCain was cranky. Definitely condescending (referring to Barack Obama as "that one" and assuming a questioner had never heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). And I'm sure he would have wondered why the organizers filled the audience with McCain associates, since he kept referring to everyone in the crowd as "my friends." But even the most ardent Obama supporter would have to admit that our ET acquaintance would think McCain had some good ideas to addresses the problems the country is now fighting, such as the need for energy independence, global warming, and reforming government and Wall Street. And our visitor from another solar system would have to be impressed with McCain's adamant assertions of the great judgement he has shown on foreign policy issues and his ability to work with Democrats.

But without the benefit of knowing the records of the two candidates, the ET wouldn't know that the John McCain he saw at the debate bore no resemblance to how John McCain, the senator from Arizona, has behaved. And based on the polls over the last two-plus weeks, it seems like the American people know the difference, at least enough of them to put McCain's hopes for the presidency in real trouble.

McCain said repeatedly during the debate that voters should check his record. One can only believe that he made that challenge hoping that nobody would actually do it.

McCain talked over and over again last night about how he had regularly opposed his party, but as Joe Biden pointed out in the vice presidential debate, McCain rarely went against George W. Bush on any issue of importance to Americans. In fact, McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office (according to a Congressional Quarterly voting study). As for making his fellow Republicans mad, McCain's words were pure fiction. He voted 98 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans (43 of 44) in 2007.

McCain's claims of working for energy independence were especially silly in light of his record. McCain took millions of dollars from oil companies, all while advocating for massive tax breaks for them and offshore drilling, their two pet issues. McCain also supported the actions of his key economic advisor, former senator Phil Gramm, when he forced through language in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that allowed for the deregulation of oil speculating, which was directly responsible for much of the recent rise in gas prices. And, as Obama has pointed out throughout the campaign, as a senator, McCain voted against bills supporting renewable energy sources multiple times. McCain has been a senator and a candidate in the hip pocket of the oil companies. How would he ever go against them to advocate for green energies that would de-emphasize the oil companies' central product?

McCain's obsession with offshore drilling also demonstrates that he has no real interest in supporting alternative energy policies. There simply isn't enough oil in the U.S. to feed our oil addiction. Even if we did drill offshore, the Bush administration's Energy Information Administration has found that it would have little effect on the price of oil and would at best result in production in 2017. Offshore drilling is a boondoggle meant to divert people's attention from the larger energy issue that has to be addressed, all while giving oil companies what they want.

In light of McCain's love affair with big oil, it should come as no surprise that his claims of being a champion of global warming measures don't match up with his history in the senate. The League of Conservation Voters gave McCain a score of zero for 2007, and in his senate career, he voted against environmental measures three-quarters of the time. McCain cited his support of a global warming bill with Joe Lieberman, but that legislation lacked the teeth to really address the problem. When Lieberman and other Democrats proposed a tougher bill earlier this year, McCain opposed it. Yet again, McCain's debate rhetoric was not supported by his record.

What about McCain's strong claims that he was a reformer who would clean up the excesses on Wall Street? McCain condemned Obama for taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but McCain's hands are hardly clean. Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with payments reportedly made to his company as recently as August. As Obama said in the debate, he never lobbied for the lenders, but Davis did. McCain talks about adding oversight to the financial industry, but he has a long record supporting the very deregulation that allowed the current subprime mortgage debacle to occur in the first place. Even as the crisis was in full swing, McCain professed recently, "I'm always for less regulation ... I'm fundamentally a deregulator." Aside from the one bill McCain talked about in the debate, he has no record as a senator of trying to clean up the financial industry. Quite the opposite.

As for foreign policy, McCain accused Obama of being wrong on key decisions, but a check of the record shows that it was McCain who has gotten every important judgment of the last decade wrong. McCain, in supporting the war in Iraq, told us that victory would be easy and we would be greeted as liberators. (You can watch him say it here and here.) He also claimed that money from Iraqi oil would pay for the war. Well, five-and-a-half years, more than 4,000 lives, $700 billion, and a broken military later, we know how fatally wrong McCain was. Once the quagmire in Iraq had set in, McCain accused Obama of trying to "legislate" defeat by advocating that funding for the war in Iraq had to come with timetables for American troop withdrawals. Again, Obama turned out to be right, and McCain turned out to be wrong. Everyone seems to have come around to Obama's position, except McCain. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said that timetables are necessary, and even the Bush administration has agreed to make them part of a security agreement with Iraq.

Even on McCain's pet issue, the surge, McCain got it wrong and continues to get it wrong. He can't go 30 seconds in a debate on foreign policy without insisting that the surge has worked and Obama was wrong to oppose it. But if the surge was successful, why are we still there? In Bush's January 10, 2007 address to the American people announcing the surge, he made it clear that the purpose of the increase in troops was not to provide a long-term force to suppress violence, but to temporarily quiet things down so the Iraqis could come together to solve their problems. Our military did its job (along with other unrelated factors cited for the improvement of the security situation), but coming up on two years later, most of the important benchmarks of success set out by Bush have not been met by the Iraqis. This point was noted in a report released by the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), which I examined in a June 24 article.

McCain talks as if the drop in violence was the end goal of the surge, not a means to the end of political reconciliation and Iraqi independence. By the terms of Bush's original announcement, the surge has certainly not been a success.

And McCain's bad judgment has not been limited to Iraq. McCain called Obama naive and premature in July in response to Obama's point that the real war on terror is based in Afghanistan, and that more troops were needed there to secure the country. McCain also said that the war in Iraq was not affecting the ability of the U.S. to send a sufficient amount of troops to Afghanistan. But in early July, shortly after McCain mocked Obama, Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directly contradicted McCain, saying: "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there." Once again, McCain was wrong, and Obama was right.

McCain said that in these difficult times, America needs "a steady hand at the tiller." But "steady" is the one word that you cannot apply to John McCain. His campaign has careened from strategy to strategy, first touting experience, then going after Obama's celebrity, and then just outright lying about Obama's record. McCain was widely noted for not handling the financial crisis well, changing his assessments, sometimes within a single day (like when did performed a 180-degree turn on the bailout of AIG). He dubiously "suspended his campaign" (without actually changing any of his conduct), went to Washington (where he might have scuttled a deal that was in place), claimed he wasn't going to the first debate if the bailout wasn't passed, but then did so anyway. He has also flip-flopped on virtually every major issue (I collected some of the biggest ones here). McCain may be a lot of things, but if the last few months is any indication, "steady" certainly isn't one of them.

So if we take on McCain's challenge from the debate and check his record against his policy statements, we find that his positions on reform, regulation, energy, foreign policy, and a number of other key issues are at odds with what he has actually done while in the senate. It would seem that his newfound positions on these issues have come about only now that he wants to be president, with some of his proposals coming in the last week or two, as he has watched his prospects for election dim.

It's easy to take a position in a campaign. But the promises are empty if the candidate has a record opposing those very positions. As I've said before, McCain now claiming that he is the man to lead us through a period of reform and energy independence is like Wile E. Coyote asking to become the legal guardian of the Roadrunner while feathers spill from his mouth.

Our extraterrestrial debate visitor might think that McCain made sense, but it looks like the American people, who have watched McCain in action for the last 26 years, are starting to understand that McCain's history renders his current plans and promises empty. McCain might get the intergalactic vote, but he will need more than that to win the White House.