- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

At times it appears John McCain” href=”/themes/?Theme=John+McCain” >Sen. John McCain’s Straight Talk Express should stop and ask for directions.

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.

John McCain’s record of working across the aisle and putting his country first over partisanship is demonstrated - Barack Obama can say no such thing,” said spokesman Tucker Bounds. “Voters know that John McCain has an independent record, and that Barack Obama’s record is a combination of his imagination and ambition.”

On Thursday, the campaign released a 7-minute Web video documenting “a timeline of Barack Obama’s political positioning on the most critical national security issue America faces today.”

The video was timed to coincide with Mr. Obama’s upcoming trip to Iraq and other foreign countries. The McCain campaign said the video exposed Mr. Obama’s evolution from opposing the military surge strategy in Iraq to embracing it.

“Rather than admit his mistake, Barack Obama is now trying to pretend that he was for the surge all along,” said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis.

Mr. Obama’s campaign responds that Mr. McCain frequently commits gaffes and has been caught using different rhetoric for different audiences.

Last month, a Republican Hispanic activist who attended a closed-door meeting said Mr. McCain was giving Hispanics a different message than the security-first rhetoric he was using on the campaign trail.

This week, Mr. Obama’s campaign said Mr. McCain was telling the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that he would increase funding for federal education programs, even though he has told other audiences that he would freeze most domestic spending.

In recent days, he has referred to Czechoslovakia, even though that nation split into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993. Gay rights groups bashed his comments to the New York Times, reported Sunday, about his stance on adoption.

The campaign then clarified that Mr. McCain would leave the issue to states. Only Florida bans same-sex couples from adopting.

“He’s not a detail person,” said Donald J. Devine, a former Reagan administration official who is editor of Conservative Battleline. “He’s not a liar. I think he just can’t believe that he would ever do anything wrong. He would think that would be some kind of moral failing, and he just figures there’s got to be something that isn’t right with what the other person said.”

Ray Dearin, a professor of English at Iowa State University who has studied political rhetoric, said it’s unlikely the gaffes push Mr. McCain off message.

Mr. Dearin, who was elected an alternate delegate to the Republican nominating convention, said the mandatory caps issue is “somewhat esoteric to most voters” and using “Czechoslovakia” isn’t a serious error: “Ninety percent of Americans still call it that.”

He said Mr. McCain might be vulnerable on his history of votes on tax cuts.

“The failure to vote for the Bush tax cuts will still linger in the minds of some GOP voters. His position against repealing them will help with the base, though he probably is vulnerable on the ‘straight talk’ issue,” Mr. Dearin said.