It was a busy weekend in the political spotlight for John McCain. On Friday, the man with 13 cars announced he would oppose the wild popular "cash for clunkers" program before claiming on Sunday that President Obama had failed the test of bipartisanship.
But it was his Wall Street Journal interview with editor Stephen Moore which may have been the most fascinating part of McCain's weekend. Fascinating, that is, as a study of revisionist history and selective amnesia by both men. While Moore now praises McCain as "one of the lead critics of Obamanomics," in the past the former Club for Growth president groused his organization's members "loathe" McCain. As for the ersatz maverick, McCain blamed the economic crisis and media bias rather than his own serial flip-flopping and miserable campaign for his defeat at the polls.
For his part, Moore skipped over his past animus towards the Arizona Senator. After all, in 2004, he announced, "We don't like McCain at all." The anti-tax, laissez faire Club for Growth tried, but did not find, what Moore deemed "a true, Reagan conservative" to oppose McCain in his '04 GOP primary. As last year's presidential primaries approached, the Club blasted McCain's opposition to the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, comparing him to "the likes of Ted Kennedy in his rhetorical attacks."
"I think John McCain, if he can get to the general election, he has a great chance of being president, especially if he's up against somebody like Hillary Clinton."
Of course, things didn't turn out that way. But to hear John McCain tell it, very little of what transpired was his fault.
For openers, he insisted, last fall's collapsing economy dealt him a losing hand:
He believes that he could have won the election had it not been for the market collapse in mid-September. "We were three points up on September 14. The next day the market lost 700 points and $1.2 trillion in wealth vanished, and by the end of the day we were seven points down. We lost the white college graduate voters, who became profoundly disillusioned with Republicans. And by the way, that was the way it ended up. We lost by seven points."
In reality, it was McCain's self-professed, self-evident ignorance on matters economic which undermined his credibility with voters. After all, McCain like his friend and adviser Phil Gramm called the recession "psychological" and prescribed eBay as the cure for what ailed the economy. On the very September day the market plummeted, McCain pronounced, "fundamentals of our economy are strong," the 18th time during the '08 campaign he had done so.
And then he suspended his campaign and said he would withdraw from the upcoming presidential debate, an inconvenient truth omitted by both men. When that grandstanding boomeranged, McCain blamed the media:
"You have no idea the pressure I was under," he says. "I remember being on the phone with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, the Treasury secretary and [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke. They assure me the world financial system is going to collapse if I don't vote for the bill. So I do the impetuous and rash thing by saying, look, I have got to go back to Washington and see how I can help. And by the way, so did Obama--but it was McCain that was the impetuous one. Obama came back to Washington." Mr. McCain grumbles, "He was at the White House with me. But he wasn't impetuous." This is the only time in our interview he shows any bitterness about the campaign.
Needless to say, the economic meltdown and McCain's erratic response to it didn't merely confirm his 2007 statement that "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should." It reinforced the consensus perception of McCain's troublesome temperament shared by friend and foe alike.
And that perception, McCain and Moore agreed, was the media's fault. The same fawning group Chris Matthews deemed "his base" and introduced "tire swinging" into the political lexicon, they insisted, was responsible for McCain's downfall.
He seems perplexed that his pals in the media turned on him in 2008 after years of worshipful press treatment. "In 2000 [when he ran against George W. Bush] I used to go chat with reporters on the back of the bus, and we would have these long, pleasant conversations...I was the underdog clawing my way up. But then in 2008, I noticed that it would be kind of a gotcha session with the press--a totally more hostile attitude."
Yet conservatives had warned Mr. McCain that he would remain a media darling up until the moment he won the GOP nomination, at which time they would rip him apart. I'm only surprised that he was surprised this happened.
Regardless, Stephen Moore celebrated McCain's new status as a thorn in President Obama's side. That was especially the case on the deficit, which for over a decade Moore has labeled "fiscal child abuse."
Asked about the deficits, his response is blunt. "I think it's the biggest problem we've ever faced."
Of course, even that was revisionist history from McCain. During the campaign, John McCain proposed tax cuts even more regressive than those of George W. Bush, a massive giveaway which would have delivered 58% of its benefits to the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers. And the result would have been $2 trillion hole in the budget. It's no wonder during 2008 McCain flip-flopped repeatedly over his ever-shifting promise to balance the budget at the end of his first term, his second term or at all. In April, his economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin probably summed it up best:
"I would like the next president not to talk about deficit reduction."
Of course, on Saturday, Stephen Moore and John McCain conveniently forgot any of that ever happened.
(A version of this piece also appears at Perrspectives.)