Monday, March 24, 2008

McCain's "senior moment"

By Michael J.W. Stickings

On Fox News Sunday yesterday -- C&L has the video and part of the transcript -- host Brit Hume referred to McCain's recent Iran/al Qaeda gaffe as "a senior moment":

I think it's probably just a blip, but it was a bigger blip than he wanted or needed at the time. I think the overall impression of the trip was this is a man welcomed by, knowledgeable of and comfortable with foreign leaders across a big part of the globe. But the mistake, nonetheless, raises questions not about his knowledgability -- we all kinda believe he has that -- the question, perhaps, about his age, which is an issue. You know, the feeling was not that he's a dope, didn't know his way around, that he might have had a senior moment there, and I think that's unfortunate for him. But I think probably the trip was a net plus.

It was a fairly serious (and revealing gaffe), and not an isolated one. And it may not be so much a matter of knowledge -- he is a smart man who knows a great deal about the world -- as it is of competence.

What is interesting, though, is how the gaffe has been received, and how future gaffes will be received. McCain continues to get a free pass from the major media in terms of experience, knowledge, and general competence, and even in terms of judgment and his positions on the issues, especially on foreign policy, international relations, and military matters. Simply put, the media like him and don't ask questions. This gaffe seems to have punctured the bubble around him, though, and, for once, the media are taking a more critical view of their darling. At the very least, the gaffe got some coverage, and he looked bad. Perhaps it was a turning point.

Or perhaps not. The spotlight isn't on him the way it's on Obama and Clinton, and the media have yet to show that they intend to treat McCain like they will undoubtedly treat either Obama or Clinton as the Democratic nominee. He is still the avuncular, straight-talking wise man. While partisans like Hume will excuse his gaffes as reflections of old age, downplaying them into meaninglessness, it will be up to the non-partisan (or less explicitly partisan) in the media to do their jobs and act like professionals. It's time to take McCain seriously -- he is the Republican nominee, after all -- and to revoke his free pass.

[UPDATE: This L.A. Times piece is a start, pointing out that McCain has gotten a lot wrong about Iraq, though it mistakenly suggests that the surge, which McCain promoted and about which he remains enthusiastic, is working. (It isn't. See here and here.) This New York Times piece is also a start, pointing out that McCain seriously considered switching parties in 2001 and reached out to John Kerry in 2004.]

As for Hume's excuse, it raises some interesting questions:

-- Is McCain simply too old to be president? Hume admits that his age is an issue -- is it?

-- Are his many gaffes reflections simply of old age, or do they speak instead to a lack of knowledge or competence?

-- McCain can talk up his experience all he wants, but does he possess the competence and judgment to be president? Whether he genuinely understands Iran and al Qaeda or not, what would he do about them? (This is where the media's new focus needs to be: What would he do as president?)

-- Could we expect similar or worse gaffes from a President McCain? If, for example, he were to launch a major strike against Iran, and that strike were to go badly, or to lead to terrible (if predictable) consequences, would his apologists like Hume tell us it was just a mistake of old age, that it was just a simple mix up, that he just thought he was ordering pizza?

-- Will Candidate McCain have Sycophant Lieberman trailing after him throughout the campaign, whispering sweet somethings in his ear? What would a President McCain do without him? Or would he not do without him? What role would Lieberman play in a McCain Administration?

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