From signature issues such as immigration and climate change to tax cuts, the presumed Republican presidential nominee sometimes just seems lost as to his own record and his stance on hot-button social issues.
After Mr. McCain said he opposed child adoptions to gay and lesbian couples, his campaign clarified that he wasn’t making policy and would leave the issue to the states.
In the past week, the candidate was unable to say whether he thought health care plans that cover drugs to treat impotency also should cover contraceptives. Mr. McCain voted against such a proposal in 2005.
For a candidate who delights in telling audiences that it’s time for “a little straight talk,” he has given his opponents chances to question that reputation. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund on Wednesday announced a TV ad campaign showing Mr. McCain’s eight-second pause and his fumble for an answer to the question on coverage for birth control.
The problem, said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who works on climate change issues, is that Mr. McCain’s campaign doesn’t prepare him well and that he stakes out positions for political reasons.
“Doesn’t mean he understands it; it means he has the instinct that ‘I don’t want to be there, I want to triangulate off those guys,’ ” Mr. McKenna said. “He finds out where the conservatives are and he moves away from them, and only when he is compelled to, by facts or political exigencies, does he recalibrate. The campaign and the Senate office is, in a lot of cases, left standing there saying, ‘OK, what target are we shooting at here?’ ”
Twice this year, Mr. McCain has said he doesn’t support “mandatory” caps on greenhouse gas emissions, even though that is the crux of his proposal to address climate change. He often uses his proposal as a chief example to differentiate himself from President Bush.
Mr. McKenna said it’s impossible to have a cap-and-trade program without mandatory caps. By embracing targets rather than mandatory caps, he said, “it sounds like something Bush could have said.”
“I would be willing to bet you every dollar I’m going to make this year he could not describe the important parts of his cap-and-trade proposal,” Mr. McKenna said.
On immigration, Mr. McCain misrepresented his own record on the most important vote of the past 40 years. He told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that he supported the 1986 amnesty. Mr. McCain voted against that bill, telling the Arizona Republic in his hometown that it was racist and would lead to employer discrimination.
The Republican’s reversal on President Bush’s tax cuts is well-documented. He was one of only two Republican senators to vote against the 2001 cuts and one of only three to oppose the 2003 cuts. On the campaign trail, Mr. McCain says he wanted to see more spending reductions and now supports making most of the Bush tax cuts permanent.
He didn’t mention spending at all during his floor speech in 2001. Instead, he adopted Democrats’ argument that the plan would aid the wealthy “at the expense of middle-class Americans.”
Like the liberal interest groups, the Obama campaign argues some of the incidents aren’t mistakes but attempts to obfuscate his record.
In a brief response to questions about his varying stances on his record Mr. McCain’s campaign said he has taken principled positions.