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McCain is having image problems internationally

COMMENTARY | May 14, 2007

Der Spiegel sees GOP candidates as a ‘pathetic assemblage’ of 10 old white men who exhaust themselves with slogans and platitudes. Spiegel and other news organizations, all more familiar with McCain than the other candidates, wonder what became of the ‘Straight Talk Express.’

By John Burke

As ten Republican Party presidential candidates joined May 3rd for their first debate, the foreign press was watching. Their main interest: to see if any one—especially John McCain—showed the promise to drag the party out of the hole it considers the Bush administration has dug. Once considered to be a possible savior, even the normally well-respected McCain is having image problems among columnists overseas.

As American journalists before them, their foreign colleagues are beginning to think that McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” isn’t as straight as it used to be.

But the one position on which he is unwavering is arguably the world’s most pressing issue: the War in Iraq. Although McCain won praise abroad for disagreeing with the Bush administration over Guantanamo Bay and the subject of torture, by supporting Bush’s policies in Iraq he has essentially alienated foreign goodwill. His comments after taking a heavily protected tour of Baghdad that parts of the obviously war-torn city were “safe” also did not win him any friends abroad.

There is plenty of time left before the primaries. But if McCain were ever to win the nomination by conducting his “Express” in the same manner, it may be that the Republican Party will have difficulty regaining any foreign allies.

Germany’s Der Spiegel called the Republican debate a “Pathetic Assemblage,” noting one of the party’s problems is its lack of candidate diversity. According to the daily, McCain didn’t fare very well:

“It was a pathetic assemblage: Ten old white men exhausting themselves with slogans and platitudes in the first televised Republican debate. Most importantly, frontrunners McCain, Giuliani and Romney all delivered a lousy picture. What triumphed was a spirit - the spirit of Ronald Reagan…

 “Sometimes the choice of location is the message: It was no coincidence that the first televised debate of the Republican presidential candidates took place in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, amid the gentle hills of southern Californian. After the torment of the Bush years, the search is on for a new Reagan.

“But he is nowhere be found. The field of Republican candidates is a pale one, when compared to the Democrats: No Hispanic (like New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson), no woman (Hillary Clinton) and no Black (like Barack Obama). Ten old white men all wearing black suits. Only the ties had color. Seven of the candidates wore red. One, the long shot, Sam Brownback, wore gold.

“An icon with which the beleaguered President's party could pull itself up is missing from this sorry circle. Either the candidates are not conservative enough for the base or too far right or unknown to have a chance.

"McCain was also the one who had the most to lose during the debate, and he delivered a poor performance. Stubborn and biting was the impression left. Staring into the camera with his fist clenched, McCain pointed threateningly at the camera, repeatedly misspeaking and banging the edge of the lectern. He looked like an animatronic figure in Disneyland, being operated by an invisible hand.

“Where was the charismatic ‘straight talker?’ McCain tried to articulate an indefinitude of slogans, and misspoke again and again. He weaseled around the Iraq War; ‘the war has been terribly mismanaged.’ He wants to follow Osama bin Laden, ‘to the gates of hell.’ He swore to voters, ‘I want to lead this nation.’

Is John McCain “The comeback grandpa?” asks The Economist (subscription required). He may be down in the polls, but it’s way to early to write off the Vietnam War hero:

“It is hard to believe that John McCain is relaunching his presidential campaign. After all, that campaign is the longest-running show in American politics. Mr McCain is a fixture on the talk-shows—and a bit-player in such low-brow comedies as ‘The Wedding Crashers’.

“But ‘relaunch’ is hardly too strong a word for it… (He) is revamping his fund-raising apparatus to make it more like the Bush machine that crushed him in the 2000 presidential campaign. He has also made room for a ‘blogger conference call’, to give the impression that he is both accessible and au fait with modern technology.

“He has little choice but to do something drastic. For weeks he has been trailing Rudy Giuliani both in the polls and in the fund-raising race. He had hoped that he would build such a powerful machine that his conservative critics would line up behind him; instead, the machine is so rickety that ex-friends in the media are lining up to write his obituary.

“The relaunching process got off to a dismal start…

“He faces plenty of obstacles. The long-time crusader against money in politics needs to turn himself into a fund-raising machine. And the long-time maverick needs to placate conservative interest groups. All the same, it is too early to write him off.

“Mr McCain is adopting a high-risk strategy for success: he is backing George Bush's Iraq surge to the hilt… This may prove disastrous…

“But equally it may be the shot in the arm that Mr McCain needs. He plainly believes what he is saying. So the straight talker is back, but this time defending an unpopular cause.

“He has perfect credentials for this stance, ranging from his own background in the navy to the fact that he has criticised Mr Bush's botched execution of the occupation from the start. And 70% of Republican voters still say that they think the war was worth waging…

“Mr McCain has more foreign-policy and military experience than the rest of the Republican field combined. He has a more solid conservative record than either Mr Giuliani (who recently scandalised conservatives by saying that he supports public funding for abortion) or Mitt Romney (who turns out to be something of a serial panderer). And he is clearly willing to stick to his guns on an unpopular issue. Conservatives would be foolish not to ponder the contention, put forward by Senator Lindsey Graham, that Mr McCain represents the best combination of ‘conservatism and electability’ available.

“It is not unusual for front-runners to stumble in American primaries. Al Gore was so worried that he would lose to Bill Bradley that he moved his campaign headquarters to Nashville and swapped blue suits for earth tones. John Kerry once mortgaged one of his houses to keep his campaign afloat. George Bush senior and Bob Dole both struggled to win the Republican nomination in 1988 and 1996. Mr McCain, now aged 70, could yet become the oldest comeback kid in American history.”

The Guardian’s opinion blog, Comment is Free writes that “John McCain’s supporters say he could unite America if elected president in 2008. It sounds too good to be true – and it probably is”:

“Take all those liberal Democrats who currently profess their admiration for him. Will their ardour remain undimmed when they learn that his opposition to abortion rights is so trenchant it earned him a zero percent rating from a major pro-choice group? What will they make of his support for the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ - creationism by another name - in schools?

“How about his vigorous and enduring support for the war in Iraq? Or his comment to CNN's Larry King that ‘I admire the religious right for the dedication and zeal they put into the political process"?

“Will thousands of GOP foot soldiers forgive him for embarrassing the administration on the issue of torture and for frustrating its efforts to definitively end the filibustering of its judicial nominees? How will they view his work with conservative bogeyman Edward Kennedy to draw up an immigration bill that would offer illegal aliens a pathway to citizenship?

“And how many members of the religious right will throw their support to a senator who has reportedly professed himself ‘comfortable’ with the idea of a gay president?

“No need to worry, McCain's supporters say when all these perils are pointed out. Straight talk will save the day.

“The message is simple: McCain is not like any other public figure. He has integrity. You might not like what he believes, but you will always know where he stands.

“Not so. McCain's positions on several issues are those of a political contortionist. When South Dakota's governor signed a law banning abortion in the state earlier this month, McCain's spokesman noted that the senator would have signed the same law, but would also have ensured ‘that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included.’

“McCain's core appeal is built on a comforting but illusory idea: that it is possible, in the present moment in America, for a candidate to be both forthright and universally beloved.

“It isn't. Too many Americans disagree too strongly about too many fundamental issues.

“McCain will face the same choices as any other politician if he continues to seek the presidency. He can rediscover his passion for straight talk and alienate many people who now like him. Or he can try to placate all sides and, in so doing, lose the lustre of the courageous truth-teller.”

Britain’s The Independent is not the least bit surprised by McCain’s candidacy, but this time around, something is missing:

“We all remember McCain the maverick, the irreverent underdog candidate of 2000 who gave George W Bush the political fight of his life. Whereas most politicians are packaged and programmed, he was neither. He loved talking to the press, he called a spade a spade. If he got into hot water when holding court in his trademark campaign bus, then so be it. And the press (not to mention great swathes of independent voters) loved him. No candidate in recent times has had greater crossover appeal. Deep down, Mr McCain might have been as conservative as they come, but his honesty and frankness made you forget it.

“Now seven years on, he's back in the Straight Talk Express, trying to recapture that entrancing freshness of 2000. But the rebel has perforce become the establishment's man. Yet Christian conservatives cannot accept that the man who once clashed with them so frequently has changed his spots, while the independents and moderates who once found him so refreshing see him as stale and predictable, just another pol who's sold his soul to win the supreme prize.

“Obviously, political skills matter hugely in a presidential campaign. But winning the White House is also in good measure dumb luck - of being the right man, or woman, in the right place at the right time. After all, only 42 people have held the job in the past 218 years. Seven years ago, the time was almost right for Mr McCain. Now it just looks wrong…

“And then there's Iraq. You have to admire Mr McCain for his consistency. His complaint has always been not that America was over-involved, but under-involved, that it has sent not too many, but too few troops. But in the process, he has yoked himself to an unpopular war and an unpopular President.

“All is not lost. This is still spring training for candidates, and the first 2008 primaries are a full 10 months away. John McCain has time to turn his campaign round - but his moment may already be gone.”

Reminiscing on John McCain’s introduction into the political spotlight by Ronald Reagan at the inaugural conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in 1973, Britain’s Telegraph doesn’t doubt that McCain is an American hero. But alas, he “finds himself yesterday’s man”: 

“A conspicuous absentee (to this year’s CPAC conference) will be Senator John McCain of Arizona, whose bid for the presidency in 2008 is based in large part on his being the heir of Reagan.

“Conference organisers accuse Mr McCain of ‘dissing us by going behind our backs’. They complain that he refused an invitation to speak and yet tried to book a meeting room to host delegates. Not even that was made available to him.

“The spat, as a poll gave Rudy Giuliani… a 14-point lead over Mr McCain (a massive 18-point swing since January) encapsulates the dilemma that could doom the Vietnam veteran's presidential ambitions…

“So what is happening to Mr McCain? Famously irascible, he has failed to rebuild bridges with many American conservatives. He remains a bitter enemy of key figures such as Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader, and James Dobson, a champion of family values. Although he has made the moves recommended by his campaign staff to placate the Right, his heart has never seemed in it. This may be to his credit - he is visibly uncomfortable when being dishonest - but it has left him in a political no-man's land.

“Most conservatives do not trust him, while floating voters suspect that he is pandering to the Right. Party elders think him unreliable. His stance on Iraq is principled, but unpopular with centrists.

“(Once), a voter accused the senator of doing some sucking up himself after he held a private meeting in Seattle with Christian conservatives who promote the theory of intelligent design rather than evolution. Mr McCain laughed and said: ‘I'll probably get into trouble, but what's wrong with sucking up to everybody?’

“The McCain I sat next to on the Straight Talk Express in 1999 would never have said that, even in jest. It was everything his candidacy stood against.

“This time, moreover, Barack Obama is the darling of the press and Mr McCain, 70, is yesterday's news. And his age is becoming a major obstacle…

“But perhaps the most telling thing is Mr McCain's demeanour. Gone is the ebullience of 2000. Now, he seems almost gloomy, burdened by the slaughter in Iraq. There is a sense among some in his campaign that he is going through the motions, despite his announcement on the David Letterman show. His connection with Vietnam, so inspiring in 2000, is a reminder of an American defeat when another looms, in Iraq. By contrast, Mr Giuliani is associated with 9/11, a day viewed with pride and nostalgia, when he displayed notable vigour and courage.

“Mr McCain was embraced by the party largely because he was seen as the most electable figure. His strategy was to establish himself early as the inevitable Republican nominee. Now that the polls show he is neither, he appears farther away from the White House than ever.”

An editorial in Arab News is confused about McCain’s position on the war in Iraq, almost calling him an anti-war candidate. But it does make a point about flip-flopping; not appreciated anywhere, deviating opinions from the same person, especially the conductor of the “Straight Talk Express”, is not going to win votes:

“The scathing words used by Sen. John McCain to describe ex-US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will strike a chord with many in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. They, and indeed many Americans, will agree wholeheartedly with the front-runner for the Republican nomination for the 2008 US presidential election: Rumsfeld is one of the worst defense secretaries in American history.

“The question, however, is why McCain, of all people, chose to put the knife in. This is after all the same McCain who said at the time Rumsfeld resigned that he was owed gratitude and respect for what he had achieved during his time in office. It is impossible to reconcile these two divergent comments. Nothing new has been learned about Rumsfeld’s handling of Iraq that was not known at the time of his resignation. No secret files have been discovered that provide grounds for a change of opinion. This is, moreover, the same McCain who has supported President Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq.

“Yet the attack on Rumsfeld cannot be seen as anything other than an attack on Bush’s entire Iraq policy. Again, there seems to be no logic. But there is. It is all about the logic of self-interest.

“McCain has been slipping in the opinion polls, particularly against Rudy Giuliani, the other leading contender for the Republican nomination. That is because the former Vietnam War hero, unlike the former mayor of New York, is seen as too closely linked to the White House’s Iraq policy. An attack on Rumsfeld is McCain’s way of putting some clear blue water between himself and the Bush team and its policies.

“The attack should be seen as a sign of the change in the Republicans’ attitude to Iraq. McCain is not the only Republican critic of the war or of the president — and he is not going to be the last. It is fairly certain that more and more Republican presidential hopefuls are going to jump on the anti-war bandwagon in the coming weeks.

“They have to, if they want to stand any chance of being elected. The majority of American voters are firmly anti-war. But will this anti-war position work for McCain?

“The about-turn is unlikely to do him any good. That is not to say that he is wrong in his latest views. He is not.

“But he has made the change for the most cynical of reasons — he wants to appeal to the voters. Neither they nor the American media are going to be taken in. Political cynicism and maneuvering are loathed in the US, as everywhere else. McCain is going to be pilloried in the press for this all-too -convenient change of heart. It conveys the impression that he is a man without consistency, without integrity and without loyalty.

“That is a bigger political turn-off than holding unpopular views. Far from rescuing his campaign, this change is likely to deal it some very damaging blows.”

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