"There used to be a pretty important principle that originated in the Republican Party, I believe, that partisan politics should stop at the water's edge," Earnest said. "And it's unfortunate that we did see a number of Republicans yesterday who criticized the president for a handshake at Nelson Mandela's funeral. That is, I think, an important progression in a number of politicians' views on that topic."
McCain on Tuesday compared the handshake to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolph Hitler, although the Arizona lawmaker later insisted the jab was intended "in jest."
In an interview with PRI Tuesday morning, McCain said that the handshake "gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial regime."
“Why should you shake hands with someone who is keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what's the point? Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” he added, referring to the British prime minister’s handshake with the Nazi leader after Great Britain agreed to Germany’s takeover of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
McCain later said he was joking, although he was serious that Obama's gesture "was terrible."
"Yeah, it was a joke. But it does give Raul Castro, who is a total dictator, prisons filled with dissidents, a propaganda boost. It does," McCain said.
Earnest was also asked about reports that an impostor had provided a fake sign language translation on the stage where the president and other world leaders stood.
"I think my only reaction to that is that it's a shame that you had a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century has gotten distracted by this and a couple of other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela," Earnest said.
In addition to the handshake and sign language controversies, the president was criticized for posing for a "selfie" with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt.
Earnest referred questions about the translator to the South African government, and said he was unaware of any security concerns over the incident.
This report was updated at 3:18 p.m.