Over the last several months, I've written a series of essays about how U.S. Sen. John McCain was turning out to be one of the worst candidates we've ever seen run for President (for the latest see here and here). His montrous flip flops, the serial mistatements about enormous issues like the difference between Sunni and Shiite, the number of troops in Iraq, his position on Social Security, his vote on the 1986 Immigration Act, his position on Immigration Reform today, his admission that he doesn't know how to use a computer. The list seems endless now.
Add that he loaded up his campaign with active lobbyists, certain to draw negative attention, his bumbling of the rehiring of Mike Murphy, and the new extraordinary set of things this week - well chronicled here by Max Bergman on the Huffington Post - and it all adds up to a man simply not up to the job of running for -- or actually being -- President of the United States. In a recent appearance, I even surmised that the GOP would become so concerned with his performance that there would start to be a quiet movement to replace him at the Convention with another candidate. This moment may be upon us as the media, and the public now has no choice but to confront that there is a man running for President who seems so out of touch with basic facts, reality, his own voting record that one might even conjucture that it would be a grave risk for the United States to put him in charge of the country.
After a Republican era where governing always played 2nd fiddle to politics and power - resulting in one of the worst governments in our history - we all hoped McCain would represent a break from the truly disapointing politics of the Bush era. But his performance these last few months shows that his lack of seriousness and knowledge about policy - even running an ad saying that his energy and drilling proposals would immediately address high gas prices when everyone knows this to be, let us say, not true - shows that the McCain candidacy has itself become an extension of this awful Republican era that did so much to harm the national interests of the United States, leaving us less prosperous, less powerful in the world and certainly less free here at home.
In putting Steve Schmidt, a Bush/Rove protege, in charge of his campaign, McCain has told us all exactly what kind of man he has become, and what kind of Presidency we can expect.
Peter Beinart, from a nifty op-ed in the Washington Post:
In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam chronicles Lyndon Johnson's absolute terror of appearing soft on Communism. Having seen fellow Democrats destroyed in the early 1950s because they tolerated a Communist victory in China, Johnson swore that he would not let the story replay itself in Vietnam, and thus pushed America into war. The awful irony, Halberstam argues, is that Johnson's fears were unfounded. The mid-1960s were not the early 1950s. The Red Scare was over. But because it lived on in Johnson's mind, he could not grasp the realities of a new day.
In this way, 2008 is a lot like 1964. On foreign policy, many Democrats live in terror of being called soft, of provoking the kind of conservative assault that has damaged so many of their presidential nominees since Vietnam. But that fear reflects memories of the past, not the realities of today. When Democrats worry about the backlash that awaits Barack Obama if he defends civil liberties, or endorses withdrawal from Iraq, or proposes unconditional negotiations with Iran, they are seeing ghosts. Fundamentally, the politics of foreign policy have changed.
Over the last few months, I've been making the case that McCain is one of the worst candidates we've seen run for President in modern times. On the two most important issues in the campaign - the economy and the war - he provides unambiguous support to the wildly unpopular and failed positions of President Bush. He trails Obama by mid single digits in most national polls, is only running in the high 30s or low 40s, is 15 points or so behind where Bush ended up with Hispanics, is not ahead in any of the 17 states that make up the Democratic base of 248 electoral college votes, and is not definitively ahead in the Southerwestern states around Arizona that supposedly know him best (in fact Obama has solid leads in CO and NM). He is an erratic and often boring beyond imagination public personality, and has been making regular and routine mistakes on the stump that I believe should be getting more attention than they have to date, as they raise questions about his basic command of facts, his own voting record and the world around him. His repeated flip-flops on major issues makes it clear he is much more ambitious pol than virtuous reformer.
Yes, Simon, we know you think this is a bad campaign and McCain a bad candidate. But why then is Obama only ahead of him by 4-6 points? Remember, my friends, that Democrats have only broken 50.1% in the national popular vote once in the last 60 years of politics, and a 4-6 point win in Presidential politics is a landslide. McCain has been on the national stage for many years, is a true war hero and his party still controls the White House. Obama only burst on the stage four years ago, has that unusual name, got quite beat up during a very tough primary, and of course is the first bi-racial candidate in our history. That Obama is ahead at all at this point to me is surprising.
Dan Balz captured some of this emerging convention wisdom yesterday in this post on McCain's Colombia trip.
By November (probably even by August), McCain's trip to Latin America will have been long forgotten, but it is a symbol now of a campaign that has yet to find its cruising speed. The time spent in Colombia and Mexico matters less than the message it sends -- or perhaps more correctly, the absence of a message that it sends. What is McCain trying to tell voters by this visit?
McCain could not have made this trip because he needs to burnish his foreign policy credentials. That may be part of the motivation for Obama's upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe: Obama wants to demonstrate that he is not intimidated by going head-to-head with McCain on international issues. He will use the overseas trip as well to bask in some of the glow that his candidacy has created abroad.
Obama's trip makes political sense. McCain's doesn't. McCain's strongest suit already is national security. Virtually every poll shows that Americans regard him as fully experienced on those issues. Voters may disagree with McCain's policies, which means there is an opening for Obama to challenge the presumptive GOP nominee on foreign policy. But demonstrating familiarity with foreign leaders or regional issues won't do much for McCain at this point. People assume he has that.
Public opinion shows deep skepticism about the value of free trade agreements. Is McCain's purpose in going to Colombia and Mexico designed to show how willing he is to buck public opinion, to demonstrate that he is prepared to take unpopular stands? That seems unlikely. Every politician this year is looking for ways to feel the pain of their constituents. McCain is no exception. He may be for free trade but he isn't looking to flaunt it to struggling workers.
Instead, take the trip as a metaphor for a campaign still not quite through its long shakedown period. McCain has had months to make the transition from nomination battle to general election, but still appears to lack the kind of cohesive operation he will need to win in a very difficult environment for the Republicans.
The McCain campaign can point to national polls that show the race with Obama is still close. Most polls have the margin in single digits. But Republican strategists outside the campaign worry that, unless McCain develops a more coherent strategy and message, he'll have difficulty winning in November. They are not in despair, but the concern is rising. McCain is aware of these concerns, but it's not clear how much he shares them.
It is useful to recall that a year ago, McCain's campaign imploded, with chief strategist John Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson handing in their resignations and the top level of the communications shop following them out the door. Almost no one gave McCain any real chance of winning. Seven months later he had clinched that nomination.
His situation now is hardly comparable. But he can't count on the mistakes of his rival to boost him in the general election the same way he was able to do in the primaries. When he returns from Colombia and Mexico and hunkers down for the holiday weekend, he will no longer have to answer questions about where he was. But will he have the answer to the question of where he goes from here.
And of course, yesterday Old Man McCain acknowledged this corrosive weakness himself, when he replaced his 2nd campaign manager of his Presidential campaign with his 3rd. The Post covered it this way:
Facing growing dissatisfaction both inside and outside his campaign, Sen. John McCain ordered a shake-up of his team yesterday, reducing the role of campaign manager Rick Davis and vesting political adviser Steve Schmidt with "full operational control" of his bid for the presidency.
Schmidt becomes the third political operative in the past year to take on the task of attempting to guide McCain to the White House. A veteran of President Bush's political operation, Schmidt will be in charge of finding a more effective message in the Arizona Republican's race against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who leads in most polls.
In a telephone interview, Schmidt said that McCain faces a difficult challenge, given the overall mood of the country, but that he is encouraged by the race remaining relatively tight.
"There are 125 days left until the American people will decide the next president," he said. "Senator McCain is the underdog in the race. We suspect he is behind nationally five to eight points but well within striking distance. I will help run an organization that exists for the purpose of delivering John McCain's message to the American people." Schmidt is also expected to abandon Davis's plan to put roughly a dozen regional campaign managers in place around the country.
The abrupt shift in leadership, announced to McCain's staff yesterday morning, came after weeks of complaints from Republicans outside the campaign and growing concerns within it about the lack of a clear message, the cumbersome decision-making process, the sloppy staging of events, and a schedule driven largely by fundraising priorities rather than political necessity.
"There's not a cogent message," one Republican strategist said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They've been attacking Obama every day, but it doesn't tie back to an overarching theme that McCain believes in."
The problems crystallized this week, with McCain on a three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he is talking about trade and drug trafficking, an exercise even some insiders considered a waste of the candidate's time.
"They've been playing this ripped-from-the-headlines game. Whatever is hot or interesting for the day is what they've been talking about," said one former McCain adviser who is no longer with the campaign.
So far I think the press has not been as nearly as tough on McCain as they could have been. It will be interesting to see if we are headed towards a big political elite downward arrow for McCain and his merry band of men, a downward arrow they certainly deserve.
Amid news reports that violence is rising in Afghanistan, the New York Times offers a major new look at how Bush Administration policies have contributed to the regrouping of Al Qaeda in the region.
The New York Times editorial page reviews Israel's recent spate of diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, reminding us how these new bold initiatives are a direct repudiation of the now clearly failed Bush strategy for remaking the region.
And the Washington Post offers an insightful piece on the growing conventional wisdom on how the GOP plans to go after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama - casting him as a politician without beliefs, willing to say and do anything to get elected.
As reported by Reuters, the European Union agreed yesterday to end sanctions against Cuba, although it will insist the Communist island improves its human rights record. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters, "Cuban sanctions will be lifted," after foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc clinched agreement at a summit dinner in Brussles. Ferrero-Waldner added, "Of course there is clear language on human rights, on the detention of prisoners and there will have to be a review also."
According to EU sources, the decision - taken despite U.S. calls for the world to "remain tough" on Havana - will be reviewed after one year. Spain reportedly led the push for a softening in policy towards Cuba, meeting some resistance from the bloc's ex-communist members and the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt. The sanctions had already been suspended in 2005, and unlike the U.S. embargo, the sanctions did not prevent trade and investment. Regardless, this is a major policy change, and lifting the sanctions is at odds with the current U.S policy towards Cuba.
Despite the current hard-line approach to Cuba in the U.S., could the EU's decision foreshadow what might become U.S. policy under a new president? Reuters reported that a draft it obtained of the EU agreement calls on Cuban authorities to: improve human rights, including unconditional release of political prisoners, ratification U.N. rights conventions, and giving humanitarian organizations access to Cuban jails. This sounds very similar to what Sen. Barack Obama said just a few weeks ago as he delivered amajor speech on Latin American Foreign Policy before the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF): "My policy toward Cuba will begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair."
Like Sen. John McCain, Sen. Obama would maintain an embargo on Cuba, but only as "leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations." Sen. Obama sees "principled diplomacy" as the way to bring about real change in Cuba. In his speech, Sen. Obama criticized what he called the eight years of "the Bush record in Latin America," i.e., having been, "negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in peoples' lives, and incapable of advancing our interests in the [American] region...The United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged....The situation has changed in the Americas, but we've failed to change with it. Instead of engaging the people of the region, we've acted as if we can still dictate terms unilaterally....the future security and prosperity of the United States is fundamentally tied to the future of the Americas. If we don't turn away from the policies of the past, then we won't be able to shape the future."
Sen. Obama's idea of a "new alliance of the Americas," at the center of that major speech, has been greeted with favor by Cuban-Americans from all political camps. It seems they agree with Sen. Obama's position that American politicians go "to Miami every four years, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba....the parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade."
Barack Obama's proposal for change with Latin America favors discussion with "friend and foe alike," in order to be a "leader and not a bystander." Under his proposal, Sen. Obama would:
1) Reinstate a Special Envoy for the Americas in the White House.
2) Expand the Foreign Service, and open more consulates in the neglected regions of the Americas; expand the Peace Corps, and ask more young Americans to go abroad to "deepen the trust and the ties among our people."
3) With respect to Cuba, he would allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island.
4) He would maintain the embargo, but also work with the Cuban regime to examine normalizing relations if it takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners.
5) Increase international aid, investment promotion, and economic development in Latin America.
6) Develop democracy through negotiations, "Put forward a vision of democracy that goes beyond the ballot box. We should increase our support for strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, vibrant civil society, honest police forces, religious freedom, and the rule of law. That is how we can support democracy that is strong and sustainable not just on an election day, but in the day to day lives of the people of the Americas."
It's important to note that Sen. Obama delivered this ground-breaking speech and revolutionary proposals in front of the CANF - the group previously known for being one of the most hard-line on Cuba policy, rejecting anything other than the overthrow of Castro as acceptable policy. But the CANF applauded. Soon after that speech, the founder of Women in White, Miriam Leiva, and her recently freed dissident husband, Oscar Chepe, also wrote an open letter to Barack Obama; they applauded his offer to allow Cuban Americans to freely visit relatives here.
They also wrote that a more creative policy could help the transition towards democracy. It seems that times are-a-changing, and everyone recognizes that the status quo has not been effective for anyone. Sen.Obama and these groups are picking up on what NDN advocated before it was popular, before this change in public perception had occurred. NDN has been a pioneer on the issue of policy with Cuba; in 2006 NDN conducted an important poll with Bendixen and Associates. The poll showed that 72% of Cuban-Americans in South Florida were actually open to consideration of creative means of engaging the people of Cuba and its government to accelerate democratization. The poll also showed that support for the trade embargo, restrictions on travel and restrictions on remittances all dropped ten percentage points over one year.