It’s been a very quiet spring for John McCain. The last big hit the Arizona senator took, media-wise, came this past February, when the New York Times ran a story on McCain’s relationships with lobbyist Vicki Iseman and communications mogul Lowell W. Paxson — a piece that ended up much worse for the Times than for McCain, who looked victimized by the paper’s insinuations of adultery. Since then, the press has focused almost exclusively on the protracted Democratic grudge match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates have been covered in exquisite detail for the past few months; so have their campaigns, their spouses, and sundry other subjects of debatable relevance (Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Clinton’s Bosnia fib, Obama’s flag-less lapels). It’s been easy to forget that McCain even exists.
But now, following Obama’s win in North Carolina and close loss in Indiana, the campaign has entered a new phase. Clinton is still a candidate, but it’s harder than ever to imagine a scenario in which she’ll win. And the press, as former Phoenix staffer Dan Kennedy noted in a recent Guardian online column, is finally switching into general-election mode. This means it’s time to start covering McCain again — not by trotting out the usual war-hero-turned-blunt-maverick narrative, but by taking a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses he’d bring to the presidency.
Of course, McCain has a well-documented knack for charming the press into submission. So here, for the men and women who’ll be spending long hours on the Straight Talk Express, is a handy list of 10 McCain stories worth pursuing over the next few months:
1) It’s the economy, Senator
This past January, the Huffington Post reported that, in a meeting with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, McCain said he “doesn’t really understand economics.” McCain denied the report. But as his then-rival Mitt Romney noted in a subsequent press release, McCain actually has a long history of such remarks. (One example, drawn from a December 2007 Boston Globe story: “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should. I’ve got [former Federal Reserve chair Alan] Greenspan’s book.”) How does McCain assess his economic knowledge now? And what concrete steps, beyond a wide array of tax cuts, would he take to keep America’s economic woes from worsening?
2) His Islam problem
McCain is going to argue that Obama is dangerously inexperienced on foreign affairs. He’s already hammered Obama for his willingness to meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But there’s reason to question McCain’s foreign-policy aptitude as well, especially regarding things Islamic. In 2006, McCain said he’d deal with ongoing problems in Iraq by sitting down together Sunnis and Shiites and telling them to “stop the bullshit.” This year, he’s confused Sunnis and Shiites on multiple occasions. Understanding Islam and the Middle East is absolutely essential to America’s national security. Does McCain grasp them well enough to be president? And can he demonstrate this understanding while speaking off the cuff?
3) Money and politics as usual?
Vague hints of an extramarital affair notwithstanding, the aforementioned Times story contained a kernel of a valid question: does McCain’s reputation as a reformer dedicated to reducing the influence of money on politics — a reputation McCain assiduously cultivated after he was implicated in the Keating Five scandal — square with his own actions? Consider this passage from David Brock and Paul Waldman’s recent book, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media (Anchor):
For his 1998 Senate run, McCain took $562,000 in contributions from the communications industry. . . . Before his next reelection campaign, he received $900,000 more, lagging only five senators among telecom beneficiaries. Between 1993 and 2000, McCain collected $685,929 from media companies, the most of any sitting member of Congress. What do these companies have in common? They all have interests before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chaired at the time.
So: does McCain’s reputation as a campaign-finance reformer pass muster or not?
4) Taken-on faith
Obama’s lengthy history with Reverend Wright was his biggest weakness in the primary, a role it will probably reprise in the general election. But McCain has pastor problems of his own. During his 2000 presidential run, McCain thrilled liberals by calling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” This time around, however, he’s cozied up to assorted figures on the religious right — including the late Falwell (McCain spoke at the commencement ceremonies of Liberty University, which Falwell founded, in 2006), Rod Parsley (an Ohio minister who’s urged the eradication of Islam, and whom McCain called a “spiritual guide” this past February), and John Hagee (a televangelist who, among other things, has called the Catholic Church the “Great Whore”). On the one hand, McCain has said that he doesn’t share all his endorsers’ views. On the other, he hasn’t condemned any of these individuals in the emphatic way that Obama eventually repudiated Wright. What does McCain actually think about the most problematic views of Falwell, Parsley, Hagee, et al.?