Thursday, August 24, 2006

Straight talk and the art of counter-pandering

It’s fascinating these days to watch the reputed straight-talker as he tailors his tongue to the political exigencies of the moment.

John McCain, with his eye on the '08 GOP nod, has been toiling for months on his top priority task -- making friends with all the conservatives who treated him like dirt during the '00 campaign. But clearly he and his handlers fear that Operation Pander has the potential to mess with his maverick image, and sour the old McCainiacs who see him as a font of integrity.

This is one of those times.

To be an effective panderer, McCain must repeatedly declare unswerving devotion to President Bush, because nothing is more prized by the Bush loyalists than loyalty itself. The problem, however, is that Bush loyalists now comprise no more than 1/3 of the general population, and the share of Americans who dislike Bush's handling of the Iraq war is now in the neighborhood of 65 percent.

That leaves the straight-talker with two options: He can keep pandering, or he can retool the talk. He has chosen the latter.

In Ohio the other day, McCain gave a stump speech assailing the execution of the Iraq war that could easily have been delivered by Hillary Clinton. The key passages:

""I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required. 'Stuff happens,' 'mission accomplished,' 'last throes,' 'a few dead-enders.' I'm just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be....(That kind of talk) has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking."

What's with all the sarcasm from McCain, all of a sudden? "Stuff happens" was one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's gems, his dismissive shrug at critics who were questioning why the war was going badly. "Mission accomplished"...well, you all know that one. "Last throes"...again, you're undoubtedly familiar with Vice President Cheney's predictive track record. How about "dead-enders?" That was another Rumsfeld verbal misfire.

By the way, McCain may wish to pin all the blame on the Bush administration for assuring the public that the war would be a day at the beach, but he too wore rose-colored glasses on occasion. On MSNBC's Hardball, on the eve of war in 2003, Chris Matthews asked McCain, "Are you one of those who holds up an optimistic view of the post-war scene? Do you believe that the people of Iraq or at least a large number of them will treat us as liberators?" And McCain replied: "Absolutely. Absolutely." Two weeks later, McCain was back on the show and said that "there’s no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there’s no doubt in my mind, once these (remaining terrorists) are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators."

But I digress. Clearly there is a concern among McCain's advisers that his ongoing displays of slavish loyalty to the Bush team could backfire with the moderate voters who liked him in the past. Yes he needs to prove his bona fides to the right-leaning activists who dominate the GOP, but no politician wants to be seriously out of sync with mainstream public opinion. Hence, the recalibrated straight talk. It's also noteworthy that it happened in Ohio, where support for Bush and the war has tanked, and where Republican Senator Mike DeWine (for whom McCain was campaigning) is ranked high on the list of endangered '06 incumbents.

And his outburst comes during the same week that the New York Times, clearly with the help or acquiesence of the McCain team, listed some of the foreign policy mavens who seem poised to join McCain's nascent brain trust. The names included a trio of Iraq war skeptics: Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to Bush's father; ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Powell deputy Richard Armitage.

So is McCain tacking back toward true independence? Not necessarily. He has prominent neoconservative pals as well, notably William Kristol. The bottom line is that McCain is probably just hedging his bets, covering all bases, doing the pander while trying to protect his image and vice versa. That purported Straight Talk Express will need to chart many crooked paths on the road to power.