- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

John McCain’s staff shakeup could not have come at a better time. Hopefully it will address what many feel is the Achilles heel of the campaign: the failure not just to forge a coherent, compelling theme for his candidacy, but equally the repeated policy contradictions, that if allowed to continue, will fatally muddle his chances of becoming president.

Exhibit A of inconsistency is his approach to energy and climate change. As the cosponsor of one of the leading climate bills, and as an environmental supporter generally, Mr. McCain is in an ideal position to nullify the Democratic Party’s traditional hold on the environment as a potent electoral issue. While in the past (and especially during times of economic turmoil) the environment has rarely ranked as highly as the economy as an electoral issue, the interrelationship of climate change with energy security and high oil and food prices provides a unique opportunity for Mr. McCain to break new ground. But he has botched the opportunity so far.

On one side of the issue, he has made an important demonstration of his support for comprehensive climate legislation in the form of what has become known as “cap and trade.” In addition to establishing his environmental credentials, support for some semblance of climate-change legislation has enabled Mr. McCain to distance himself from President Bush, who is a significant political liability, on an important set of issues. Although Senate Democrats could not muster enough votes to break a filibuster on the leading cap-and-trade climate initiative in the Senate - the Lieberman-Warner bill - this legislation is far from dead and will return in some form in the coming years. Yet Mr. McCain apparently did not participate at all in the debate. Instead, during that time frame, he campaigned for offshore drilling and joined Hillary Clinton in proposing a gas-tax holiday, both long on populism but short on reality.

Both of these initiatives significantly and perhaps even fundamentally undercut his climate position, for they call for the use of more oil without any offsetting program of conservation and alternative fuels development. Mr. McCain has also at times supported and opposed ethanol, and this ambivalence too undermines his position. Indeed, he was at the forefront of a number of senators signing a letter to EPA to roll back parts of the 2007 energy bill signed just last December to reduce transport dependency on oil - 20 percent by 2020. This legislation is probably the world’s most aggressive transport climate policy, so Mr. McCain’s backtracking is hard to explain to the average American and opens him to criticisms of being a flip-flopper.

There are arguments to be made about first-generation biofuels derived from corn and how fast we can move to the second generation that does not compete with food production. But Mr. McCain has not engaged in this debate, even though Barack Obama’s close association with the ethanol industry (much of it based in Illinois) provides an elegant contrast, if such a contrast were desired. The public would benefit from the debate as a general matter, and one hopes the debate is at some point engaged.

There are other potential inconsistencies. Mr. McCain has hit Russia pretty hard, suggesting, for example, that it should be dropped from the G8. At the same time, he has spoken forcefully for the need to engage Russia directly on the question of arms control in a high-level dialogue. Now, the G8 - an economic forum - is not necessarily the right place to talk about nuclear issues, but given the world’s energy shortages it is not necessarily the wrong place, either. In any event, the two positions have not been reconciled.

For years, Mr. McCain has been regarded as one of the most mainstream, even maverick, Republicans in the Senate. Yet as the election progresses, he denies any attraction to progressive ideals. He’s afraid of losing the conservative vote, but each time he contradicts his Senate voting record, all of his votes - conservative and liberal - are jeopardized. However, simply because Mr. McCain’s campaign tactics are presently losing the battle doesn’t mean that the ultimate outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion. Mr. Obama’s issue stances and inexperience create significant problems for him despite his advanced campaign tactics. Let’s think back to 2000 where George W. Bush commanded a much better campaign than his opponent, former Vice President Al Gore. Despite his superior plan and execution, Mr. Bush still lost the popular vote.

One senses from time to time that Mr. McCain is running his campaign like a Senate office, falling into the habit of taking multiple positions that come back to haunt any senator who seeks the presidency. We saw the consequences of this most recently with the Bush campaign’s ability to exploit John Kerry’s changing stance on the Iraq war. As Mr. Bush also demonstrated, in repeating his core themes despite the growing detractors, a successful presidency is not achieved by sending mixed messages. And one certainly can’t expect to get to the White House by campaigning that way.

Armstrong Williams’ column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

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