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McCain's Bait-And-Switch

What the candidate doesn't mention in tonight's speech may be more important that what he does.

Political conventions have a public and a private face. The respective parties and their nominees carefully control how each looks. John McCain’s campaign is trying to keep some of his and Sarah Palin’s positions on policy out of the public eye--meaning out of prime time speeches, and in some cases even out of the public forums that take place during the day and are open to the media. These omissions are as important to what the convention means as the speeches themselves. They show what candidate wants to hide from the public--until after he is elected.

1. Abortion: In attempting to sell Sarah Palin to the delegates in the delegate breakfasts, McCain surrogates highlighted her opposition to abortion. Talking to the Arkansas delegation, for instance, on Monday morning, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn described Palin as “pro-life, pro-family, pro-business, pro-second amendment, pro-everyone of us.” Notice what came first. But any mention of abortion or “life” was absent from Palin’s acceptance speech. She didn’t need to tell the delegates what she thought. But she and the McCain campaign wanted to hide her sentiments from the Hillary Democrats and pro-choice independents the campaign hopes to attract.

2. Immigration: With Sen. Ted Kennedy, McCain backed what is called “comprehensive immigration reform”--meaning a combination of border security with increases in legal immigration and a path to visas and citizenship for illegal immigrants. Faced with Republican opposition to this stand in the primaries, McCain backed off, and said he favored border security first. But then this summer, he told the League of United Latin American Citizens that he favored comprehensive reform after all. What position does McCain really take? The convention platform’s position on immigration opposes comprehensive reform. In private briefings, top McCain advisors indicate he still backs comprehensive reform. But except for a passing mention in Sen. Joe Lieberman’s speech, immigration has not been a public topic at this convention--either in the public discussions open to the media or in the major televised addresses. Will McCain discuss it tonight? My guess is no: he doesn’t want to offend either white working class voters leery of illegal immigrants or Latinos.

3. Foreign Policy: McCain has let it be known that his main expertise and interest is in foreign policy, and the positions he has taken since 1999 have strongly reflected the influence of neo-conservatism. In this campaign, his most influential advisors are neo-conservatives closely identified with very hawkish views on the Middle East, Russia, and China. But from the convention’s public events that are open to the media, you wouldn’t know what McCain’s deepest convictions are and who has shaped them. McCain’s actual advisors have been notably absent from public forums on foreign policy. Randy Scheunemann bowed out of a Humphrey Institute forum at the last minute. Richard Fontaine appeared at one forum, but his comments were devoted to things like McCain’s support for ending malaria in Africa.

McCain’s surrogates have attempted to portray the Arizonan as independent of any influence--a shocking assertion given the one-to-one correspondence between McCain’s major foreign policy speeches and the recent works of neo-conservative Robert Kagan. At a forum on Tuesday sponsored by the International Republican Institute, Bush administration diplomat Rich Williamson claimed that the entire discussion of who influences McCain was moot. “John McCain listens to a whole range of people, but John McCain has breathed international affairs all his life,” Williamson said. “Being a foreign policy advisor to John McCain is like being a golf coach to Tiger Woods.”

At the same time, Williamson and other participants in the IRI panel were portrayed by host Lorne Craner (who worked for McCain and is close to him) as being “close advisors” to John McCain. These participants included a number of people who McCain either rarely consults or no longer consults, such as Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, and former Sec. of State Lawrence Eagleburger. In other words, the campaign made an attempt to distance McCain from his real advisors, while implying through the addition of people like Scowcroft that he held views other than he does.

In these forums, McCain surrogates have also downplayed McCain’s hawkishness. Eagleburger, for instance, attributed to McCain a priority for establishing alliances (without mentioning McCain’s support for a controversial League of Democracies). “John McCain isn’t going to run the world out of the White House,” he said. “We need support, we need to repudiate the view that we are always right.” McCain was given credit for the surge, but surrogates claimed that he is committed to leaving Iraq. Even Lieberman--substituting for Scheunemann at a Humphrey forum--described leaving in 2011 as “a reasonable goal.” There was no mention of the kind of long-term presence in Iraq that McCain is known to favor. Like Reagan during the fall 1980 campaign, McCain seems to want to soften his own foreign policy convictions, while allowing his own biography to demonstrate his ability to stand up to potential enemies.

Of course, McCain himself could surprise me tonight. He could attack abortion on demand, call for comprehensive immigration reform, and warn Iran that if it doesn’t forego nuclear weapons, war could follow. But I don’t think he will. On the basis of the convention so far, McCain wants to keep these views out of the public debate. That may help him win the election, but if he does win, and turns around and appoints judges that will overturn Roe v. Wade or gins up a new war with Iran without making a reasonable attempt at negotiations, he will breed fury and disillusionment in the electorate.

John B. Judis is a Senior Editor at The New Republic.

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