My friends, what is up with John McCain?
Almost every day he reverses a long-held, if no longer deeply-held, position on a major issue facing voters this November.
Most recently (not counting the last few minutes), he decided he wants to permit oil and gas drilling in federal waters off our coastlines.
California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, immediately doused the idea with cold water — Californians love their coasts far more than party politics.
McCain’s about-face left Florida, a must state for him, reeling. Although its governor, Charlie Crist, on McCain’s list of potential running mates, quickly lined up behind him, as did President Bush, most Floridians do not want their gorgeous coasts exposed to potential environmental catastrophes.
As with McCain’s stupid idea for a summer gas-tax holiday (which won’t happen because Congress won’t pass it and which would have done almost nothing to help desperate drivers while adding to the federal deficit), drilling won’t help the current situation. It would take about a decade before oil or gas would start to flow from new drilling.
(Whether depleting our remaining oil in a few decades or developing alternative energy sources is the better idea is a debate for another time.)
Earlier, McCain flipped on holding prisoners at Guantanamo. Long an opponent of permitting torture of prisoners on grounds it will hurt Americans held captive, McCain now says he despises the new Supreme Court decision ruling that holding "illegal non-combatants" for years without charges or giving them access to lawyers is unconstitutional.
After the high court ruled Guantanamo detainees have a legal right to go to civilian courts in the United States to argue against their confinement, McCain said this was "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."
Never mind that the decision did not free one prisoner but merely gave them due process.
Never mind that the Vietcong held McCain for five years as an illegal non-combatant, arguing Americans invaded their country without cause. (If the Bush administration had held suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda members as prisoners of war, as recommended by the U.S. military, it wouldn’t be in this pickle.)
Sometimes McCain wants to close Guantanamo Bay prison and move its detainees to Fort Leavenworth. Sometimes he says it would be premature to close it.
He says he wants the best for American soldiers, although he doesn’t want to pull them out of Iraq. But he opposes expanding educational benefits for returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq as proposed in a bipartisan bill.
Then there was McCain’s famed switch on tax cuts for the well-to-do. He strenuously opposed Bush, arguing the tax cuts were fiscally irresponsible. Now, with the deficit soaring and Americans terrified the next recession is already here, he wants the tax cuts benefiting the wealthy extended.
Yet another flip-flop concerns ethanol. McCain used to say ethanol (gasoline made from corn) was a fraud, that it took just as much energy to produce it as it led to and that subsidizing its development was a waste of taxpayer dollars. Now, he loves ethanol, joking he has a glass of it every morning.
A new McCain ad advocates addressing climate change. In 2000, he said he didn’t know much about it. Now he says, "My friends, the United States has neglected its obligation to deal with greenhouse gases." He doesn’t acknowledge that more oil drilling might conflict with his goal of fighting global warming. He also has decided that more nuclear power be part of moving to U.S. energy independence.
Those, at least, are honest refinements. After all, there is nothing wrong with a politician changing his mind as he learns more about an issue.
But what is disconcerting about McCain’s recent changes, especially on drilling, taxes and Guantanamo, is that it sure looks like pandering. (If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck.)
Whatever happened to the straight talk express? Whatever happened to the maverick?
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)