07/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Incoherence from McCain

The McCain campaign's mounting incoherence -- born of the candidate's attempts to straddle the political center and the right, and of his apparent ignorance of the content of his own proposals -- is a sight to behold.

Just in the past few days, there's been a drumbeat of contradictory messages. McCain pledged to balance the budget by the end of his first term, but provided no details for what is a politically impossible task right now -- made more so by his proposed tax cuts and increases in defense spending.

Then McCain denounced the pay-as-you go element of Social Security, in which today's taxpayers pay the benefits of today's retirees, as an "absolute disgrace." It's not clear why he said this -- of course, if you have rising numbers of retirees and relatively few taxpayers, it's a problem. But a "disgrace"? This is, after all, the way the program was designed and has operated for 70-plus years. The campaign"s explanation -- the "disgrace" is the failure to address the coming shortfall -- doesn't really make sense. So we're left with the impression, justified or not, that McCain somehow questions the rationale behind Social Security itself.

Now, McCain's staffers are apparently telegraphing the idea that he will abandon cap-and-trade as his big fix for climate change. This is probably wishful thinking on the part of conservatives. But still -- this is the centerpiece of McCain's climate policy. Or is it?

McCain's position on Iraq also got muddled on the question of whether we will be maintaining bases in a peaceful Iraq for decades to come, or leaving much sooner at the behest of the Iraqi government.

Presidential campaigns are always semi-improvisational -- they can't just rely on position papers, and must respond to changes in the world and the political environment. But this goes well beyond semi -- these are not intelligent or even opportunistic adjustments to events, but random, chaotic changes. This isn't jazz, it's noise. There seems to be some fundamental confusion about what McCain's policies are or should be, and also about his underlying principles. On a practical level, you never know precisely how a candidate's positions will be translated into actual policy -- but you can get some general ideas. That doesn't seem to be the case here. We don't know what McCain would actually do if he becomes president. And at least right now, neither does he.