Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bile and guile with a smile

When the mood strikes him – as it did last night, with the GOP brass ring finally in sight – John McCain can sure be a duplicitous rascal.

In the final Republican debate before the Feb. 5 primaries, McCain took Mitt Romney apart. He gleefully tormented his rival – bile with a smile - while Romney just sputtered and whined. McCain was hit with a few tough questions along the way, but he shrugged them off, bobbing and weaving and stonewalling…and Romney, perhaps still reeling from his critical primary defeat in Florida, let him get away with it.

In other words, there wasn’t much "straight talk" from McCain last night. But if the Feb. 5 voters are in the hunt for a wily SOB, they’ve probably found him. As the fabled baseball manager Leo Durocher supposedly said half a century ago, "Nice guys finish last."

In fact, we saw the frontrunner in a variety of guises:

McCain the dirty trickster. He repeatedly insisted – as he had during the final 48 hours in Florida – that Romney waved the white flag back in April 2007, by supposedly endorsing a secret timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Romney had said no such thing.

In his interview that month with ABC News, Romney said that President Bush and the Iraqi prime minister should establish a set of confidential "timetables and milestones" that would help them measure progress "in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police and the leadership of the Iraqi government." And when the reporter sought clarification, and asked whether Romney, as president, would veto any timetable on troop withdrawals, he replied, "Of course."

Romney, visibly flustered, again tried to point all this out last night, but McCain stuck with his charge. He argued that Romney had engaged in surrender talk simply by uttering the word timetable, which was a "buzz word for withdrawal" back in the spring of ’07 - and, worse yet, it was a Democratic buzz word. McCain was clearly flogging a lie, but it worked brilliantly as a debate tactic, because it forced Romney to spend precious time playing defense.

And the clever part was that McCain wove the lie into his larger narrative – the true part – about how he had vocally supported the surge early last year while virtually everyone else, including Romney, was silent or circumspect. All the while, Romney was lamenting about how he had been wronged, and I suspect that many Republican viewers reacted by thinking, "Deal with it, girly man."

McCain the artful dodger. When the questioning got tough, he climbed aboard the double-talk express.

It was pointed out, for example, that back when he opposed the Bush tax cuts, he complained that they were skewed too heavily toward the rich. Yet now he supports making those tax cuts permanent. So, he was asked, if those cuts were too skewed to the rich before, aren’t they still too skewed to the rich?

Naturally, it was an inconvenient question, since it reminded Republican viewers that he had assailed the Bush cuts and had offered a liberal populist rationale for doing so. He thus stonewalled the question. Instead of talking about 2001, he time-traveled to 1981: "I was part of the Reagan revolution. I was there with Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman and all these other fighters that wanted to change a terrible economic situation in America with 10 percent unemployment and 20 percent interest rates. I was proud to be a foot soldier."

Yet Romney, rather than pouncing on McCain’s transparent evasion, offered only a mild rejoinder, then went wandering off into a policy rap about entitlements. And that was the pattern last night.

A questioner also reminded McCain that the senator’s original immigration reform bill had featured a path to citizenship for illegals. He was asked whether he would vote for that same bill today if it came to a vote on the Senate floor (which is tantamount to asking whether he still supports a path to citizenship, an idea that is anathema to much of the conservative base).

He replied: "It won’t. It won’t..."

Question: "But what if it did?"

Again he replied: "No, it would not." He said he now believes that border security trumps all other immigration issues (it is, he says, "the mandate of the American people"), and he explained his new priorities before adding testily, "if you want me to go through the description all over again, I would be glad to."

Yet Romney, rather than pouncing on McCain as a flip-flopper, as just another Washington politician who bends with the prevailing winds (in this case, the conservative base), he stayed silent.

McCain the counter-puncher. Early in the debate, when Romney tried to rally conservative voters by citing McCain’s various past heresies, McCain basically said, "I’m proud of my conservative record," and quickly pivoted to the offense, ticking off a litany of Romney’s alleged failings as governor of Massachusetts. And Romney, in response, took the bait. He said, "OK, I got a little work to do here," and launched into a lengthy rebuttal that only served to keep him stuck on defense. The quality of his rebuttal was beside the point; what mattered was that, again, he was kept busy trying to explain himself, and that’s not where a candidate wants to be.

McCain the rabbit-puncher. Every once in awhile, without provocation, and simply because he seemed to enjoy it, McCain gave Romney a whack to the kidneys. During a civil disquisition about the experiences that qualify a candidate for the White House, McCain said of Romney’s business background, "He’s a fine man. And I think he managed companies. And he bought and he sold and sometimes people lost their jobs. That’s the nature of that business."

And again, Romney let it go. All told, if this guy can’t find a way to keep his footing, and take the fight to McCain in the scant time remaining before Feb. 5, then he probably deserves to lose.