Double-talk jeopardy

Arizona Sen. John McCain’s (R) charge that former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney favors setting a date for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq tells one a lot more about the “straight-talking” McCain than about Romney.

The Arizona senator had been desperately trying to change the subject in Florida, where voter concern about the economy is seen as giving Romney a leg up in Tuesday’s primary. When Romney called him to account, McCain not only refused to apologize, he suggested instead that “the apology is owed to the young men and women serving this nation in uniform.”

The McCain ploy worked in the short term because the media can always be counted on to glom on to controversy. The coverage of what was being discussed in Florida no longer centered on the question of which candidate might be better able to lead a nation facing hard economic times, but on a debate over whether Mitt Romney had or had not at some point in the past favored a “set timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.” McCain, in attacking Romney, argued that, “If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Sen. [Hillary Rodham] Clinton [D-N.Y.] wants to do, and withdraw, as Gov. Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher.”

That’s about as negative as you can get and would be a damning indictment if in fact Romney had ever said what McCain accused him of saying or doing.

But he hadn’t. McCain and his advisers have been unable to come up with a smoking gun, but point rather weakly to an April 2007 ABC interview that, as Ron Kessler of Newsmax reports, actually “makes it clear that Romney said the opposite of what McCain claimed he said.” No matter. The master of “straight talk” simply continues to assume that everyone will believe whatever he says about just about anything. For example, in the Florida GOP debate he all but denied that he had ever said that he really doesn’t know all that much about economic policy when confronted by questioner Tim Russert with his quote saying just that.

These tactics may work in Florida, where Romney and McCain are locked in an extremely tight race, but McCain may wake up one morning to discover voters have wised up to his sanctimoniousness and realize that all heroes are not Ike.

The McCain resurgence has led to a spate of stories wondering if conservatives will rally to his candidacy if he wins the GOP nomination. McCain himself claims that he has “no problem” with conservatives, but that a few “self-appointed” conservative leaders like this columnist don’t seem to like him because, as McCain adviser John Weaver told a Washington Post reporter recently, they “put their own interests above the national interest.”

Most politicians who identify their interests with the national interest eventually conclude that whatever they have to do to advance those interests is justifiable; that in their case, the end almost always justifies the means. Such politicians can be dangerous and John McCain is just such a politician. In McCain’s world everything is personal: to disagree with him marks one not just as wrong, but as almost definitionally evil.

Politicians often consciously or unconsciously exaggerate or mischaracterize what their opponents have said, but making things up out of whole cloth is different. Lying about what Romney said back in 2007, and accusing him of wanting to wave a “white flag” in the face of our enemies while suggesting that, if nominated and elected, Romney would pursue policies that would result in “chaos and genocide” in Iraq is over the line. Only a politician who believes the future hangs on his own political success could do so with a straight face.

Stories of McCain’s intolerance abound in Washington. He’s attacked his fellow senators personally when they have had the temerity to actually disagree with him. Indeed, one Republican senator told me several years ago that he was confronted by an enraged McCain after voting against a minor amendment in committee and dressed down in “language that would be inappropriate in a barroom, let alone in the Senate.”

It is these qualities that concern many who know McCain best. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R) is universally liked and admired by his colleagues. He’s known McCain for decades, and while he’s no camera hog, his colleagues listen when he speaks. In endorsing Romney over McCain in what many now view as a two-man race, Cochran said of McCain, “The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine.”

That sort of sums it up.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.

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