A Novel Defense For McCain's Policy Reversals

Two months ago, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen noted in passing that John McCain has “fudged and ducked and swallowed the truth on occasion.

Two months ago, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen noted in passing that John McCain has “fudged and ducked and swallowed the truth on occasion.” Cohen, however, said McCain deserved a pass because he had “understandable” reasons for his mendacity. And what, pray tell, were these “understandable” reasons? Cohen didn’t say. They were just, ipso facto, understandable.

Yesterday, Cohen added a little substance to the claim. McCain may be a flip-flopper, but that’s fine, Cohen argues, because he’s also a former prisoner of war. Seriously.

Cohen notes from the outset that McCain has “abandoned his maverick persona of old and moved to assure the GOP that on most matters, he is devoutly orthodox.” Cohen then lists six issues on which McCain “has either reversed himself or significantly amended his positions.” The WaPo columnist then boasts, “There, I’ve said it all.” (He hadn’t said anywhere close to it all — Cohen missed about 42 other issues on which McCain has reversed course.)

And then Cohen concludes why none of that matters.

McCain is a known commodity. It’s not just that he’s been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It’s also — and more important — that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This — not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express — is what commends him to so many journalists.

Obama might have a similar bottom line, core principles for which, in some sense, he is willing to die. If so, we don’t know what they are. Nothing so far in his life approaches McCain’s decision to refuse repatriation as a POW so as to deny his jailors a propaganda coup. In fact, there is scant evidence the Illinois senator takes positions that challenge his base or otherwise threaten him politically. That’s why his reversal on campaign financing and his transparently false justification of it matter more than similar acts by McCain.


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None of this makes a lick of sense.

Yes, I will gladly concede that McCain endured torture and abuse as a POW that I can hardly imagine. The nation will always owe him a debt of gratitude for what he endured. But what this has to do with McCain reversing himself on dozens of issues four decades later is a mystery.

To hear Cohen tell it, McCain’s service during Vietnam is the ultimate trump card, freeing McCain of political responsibility. Indeed, Cohen feels justified in comparing McCain’s days as a POW to Obama’s reluctance to stray from liberal orthodoxy. Talk about comparing apples to oranges, Cohen is comparing apples to carburetors.

Greg Sargent added:

Obama’s reversals matter more than McCain’s, because McCain’s POW past proves … something or other that doesn’t have anything to do with his actual stances on the issues. Or something like that. It’s unclear whether Cohen means that McCain’s flip-flops don’t matter as much as Obama’s substantively or whether they don’t matter as much politically. But either interpretation makes this equally ridiculous. […]

If Cohen ever served, it isn’t reflected in his official bio, and you probably couldn’t ask for a more perfect demonstration of this Vietnam envy phenomenon than Cohen’s column today.

(To clarify, Cohen joined the National Guard during Vietnam, did basic training, and then never got around to completing his service requirements.)

I don’t know what’s gotten into the WaPo pundits lately. David Broder argued the other day, “McCain benefits from a long-established reputation as a man who says what he believes. His shifts in position that have occurred in this campaign seem not to have damaged that aura.” It’s a similar argument to Cohen’s — McCain’s been flip-flopping, but that’s fine because the media elites can vouch for him.

If guys like Cohen and Broder spent more time examining McCain’s radical transformation, and less time rationalizing why it doesn’t matter, the electorate might actually gain some important insights into the man vying to be president.

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