Monday, February 19, 2007

McCain's duck and pander strategy

Thank you, John McCain, for proving my point.

In a print column yesterday, I boarded the Flip Flop Express for an extended look at how far the ’08 presidential candidate has journeyed away from his image as an “independent” “straight-talking” “maverick.” I itemized a number of examples – only to discover, after publication, that McCain had just provided two more.

For starters, he opted to duck a Senate vote on Iraq, rather than put himself on record. Unlike all the other senators who are running for president, he stayed away from the chamber on Saturday, and thus avoided taking a position on whether the Senate should begin debating President Bush’s troop escalation plan. A “straight talker,” one might argue, would be someone who takes a stand and (in his case) explains the reasons why he deems it unacceptable for senators to debate the most crucial issue of our generation. (In the end, 56 percent of the senators on Saturday did try to open debate - four short of the number of votes required to break a Republican filibuster.)

McCain preferred to stay on the campaign trail, which brings us to example number two: Seeking again to recalibrate his political convictions, and thus appeal to conservative primary voters, he said this yesterday in South Carolina: “I do not support Roe vs. Wade. It should be overturned.” An AP story dutifully reported the quote – without providing any of the context. Such as the fact that, in 1999, as he was mounting his first presidential bid, he said this: "Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade." Why not? Because without Roe, he said, “thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations." Therefore, he said, Roe was "necessary."

McCain's 1999 remarks angered the anti-abortion forces; as David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, complained at the time, "In contending that legal abortion is 'necessary' and that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned because it would force women to undergo dangerous illegal abortions, McCain parroted arguments of the pro-abortion movement. A candidate who argues that legal abortion is 'necessary' is not a pro-life candidate."

Which explains why McCain is talking differently this time.

Actually, what’s most striking about McCain is the contrast between his political strategy and the path currently being charted by Hillary Clinton. Whereas McCain is working overtime to pander to his Republican base (and especially the religious right), Clinton seems increasingly committed to ticking off her Democratic base (and especially the antiwar left).

This past weekend in New Hampshire, she basically told Democratic primary voters that she would not apologize for her 2002 Senate vote in favor of Bush war authorization, despite their incessant demands that she do so. Indeed, she signaled in effect that, if they didn’t like her stance, then too bad, they should vote for somebody else.

Her exact language: “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.”

The first part of that sentence was a reference to Barack Obama, who wasn’t a senator in 2002; the second part was a reference to John Edwards, who has pleaded mea culpa for his ’02 vote. Clearly, she is betting that Democratic voters will respect her decision not to pander, that in the end she will gain more respect if she eschews the flip flop and opts instead for resolve.

Apparently this is the kind of bet that John McCain does not feel he can afford to make. Which explains why he is scheduled to huddle in private today with Jerry Falwell.