McCain away from his comfort zone



McCain denies inventing this.

Did John McCain have a bad week, or what? Take this guy out of his comfort zone (playing second banana to his ill-qualified running mate; talking about the war on terror) and, as evidenced by the latest economic turbulence, he promptly gets blown all over the sky like a prop plane in high winds.

He started his week by insisting that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," which not only seemed politically ill-timed, given the Wall Street meltdown, but seemed to conjur the worst memories of Republican President Herbert Hoover, who had declared, at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, that "the fundamental business of the country, that is, production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis." McCain was therefore compelled within hours to amend his remarks and insist that, by "fundamentals," he was only talking about America's workers - which was hogwash anyway, because McCain has been using that "fundamentals" sound bite all year without ever claiming that he was referring only to the workers.

Barack Obama jumped all over McCain's instant revision, whereupon Sarah Palin tried to rush to the rescue by condemning Obama for his "unfair attack on the unfair attack based on verbage." (At the risk of my being labeled an "elitist," for having the temerity to defend the English language, I'd like to point out that the correct pronunciation of the word is "verbiage").

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, McCain surrogate Carly Fiorina zapped her own candidate by telling MSNBC that "I don't think John McCain could run a major corporation," shortly after she told a St. Louis radio station that Palin couldn't run one either. These remarks didn't do much to build a case for the GOP ticket's executive expertise. I also seem to recall that, during the GOP convention, Rudy Giuliani mocked Obama because he had "never run a business," so it was at least refreshing to see Fiorina take note of the same hole in McCain's resume - giving equal time, as it were. Fiornia's mouth has since been secured with duct tape.

But McCain economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin has apparently escaped the duct-tape fate, even though he insisted Tuesday that McCain, as a supposedly tech-savvy Senate chairman, helped invent the Blackberry. Seriously. Holtz-Eakin held up his Blackberry to reporters and said that "you're looking at the miracle John McCain helped create, and that's what he did." The McCain camp had to spend much of Tuesday knocking that one down.

Also on Tuesday, McCain declared that he opposed any federal bailout of the American International Group, the insurance behemoth known as AIG. He was applauded for that stance on Tuesday night by surrogate Mike Huckabee, who dutifully went on TV and said: "John McCain has a long history of being against an overreaching government, regulatory environment...The marketplace will correct itself."

The very next day, McCain came out in support of a federal bailout of AIG, apparently deciding that, contrary to his long-held convictions, he didn't think that the marketplace would "correct itself."

Elsewhere on the flip-flop front, McCain declared on Tuesday that he favored creation of a "9/11-type commission" to study the Wall Street situation and recommend future solutions (at least, by invoking 9/11, he got to spend a few seconds inside his comfort zone). But after it became apparent that this idea was a dog - it made him look like a ditherer, as opposed to a take-charge leader - he reversed himself and, within 48 hours, he was suddenly a pro-government activist, proposing the creation of a brand new federal agency. But he was also anxious to kick some butt, any butt, thus declaring yesterday that the president should fire Chris Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. This idea died as soon as it left McCain's mouth. Apparently our seasoned, experienced Republican candidate didn't know that presidents can't fire the chairmen of independent regulatory commissions; this prohibition was first decreed by the U.S. Supreme Court 73 years ago.

There were other embarrassments this week - such as the moment when Palin, on the stump and apparently drunk on her own celebrity, took top billing by referring to the next four years as "a Palin and McCain administration" - but perhaps the weirdest was not about the economy at all. It was about Spain.

I won't recycle all the details, which have been covered extensively elsewhere. In essence, earlier this week, when a Latino radio reporter in Miami asked McCain, repeatedly, whether he'd be willing next year to meet with the president of Spain, McCain wouldn't give a straight answer. Instead, he kept talking about our allies in Latin America and "this hemisphere." The incident has touched off considerable debate over whether McCain was having a senior moment, whether he didn't understand the questions and was somehow confusing Spanish president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero with someone on this side of the pond.

But let's assume he was not temporarily addled by age. Let's assume instead that his campaign was giving out straight talk when it insisted yesterday that McCain had done exactly what he had intended to do - signal his refusal to take any meeting with Zapatero. If true, that stance puts McCain right in sync with President Bush and the neoconservatives - which, politically, is not necessarily the best place to be.

Zapatero has been on the outs with the Bush regime ever since he had the audacity to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. McCain is therefore signaling - if we can believe yesterday's spin - that he would refuse to meet with a western democratic NATO ally, apparently because this ally had the smarts to separate itself from the disastrous war that McCain has always supported. The McCain position is thus a perpetuation of the Bush "you're either with us, or against us" credo, and fits squarely with the perception - already embraced by a landslide majority of Americans - that McCain as president would either advance Bush's priorities, or govern even more conservatively.

And that's the kindest interpretation of this incident; indeed, that's the interpretation in Spain, where our ally is unsurprisingly upset with McCain. All told, when McCain suffers turbulence even inside his comfort zone, you know it's been a really bad week.


Click here for's politics page.