Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lifestyles of the Maverick

Senator McCain had what some might call a Black Friday (or a Not Good Friday).

First, when responding to a questioner at an Iowa forum, McCain said he did not want to get involved with judging the merits of court decisions as President (admirable) because such an area was a "tar baby" for a politician (yikes). I don't believe I know or have heard anyone throughout my entire life use the term "tar baby." (Admittedly, I do not know many 70-year-olds, but surprisingly I do know several 80-year-olds. So figure that one out.)

The point is that McCain apologized for using the term. This apology is OK, if we have to accept it (and we do) but again, why do certain politicians speak in tongues completely separate from modern reality? Who uses this term anymore? Anyone?

Second, when asked a question by a reporter in Iowa (Is this why you skipped the state in 2000, Senator?) McCain traveled down an odd path that left everyone with what might be described as a not-so-fresh feeling. Courtesy of the New York Times, here's the exchange with some color commentary:

Reporter: “Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?”

Mr. McCain: “Well I think it’s a combination. The guy I really respect on this is Dr. Coburn. He believes – and I was just reading the thing he wrote– that you should do what you can to encourage abstinence where there is going to be sexual activity. Where that doesn’t succeed, than he thinks that we should employ contraceptives as well. But I agree with him that the first priority is on abstinence. I look to people like Dr. Coburn. I’m not very wise on it.”
(Mr. McCain turns to take a question on Iraq, but a moment later looks back to the reporter who asked him about AIDS.)

Mr. McCain: “I haven’t thought about it. Before I give you an answer, let me think about. Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don’t know if I would use taxpayers’ money for it.”

Reporter: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”
Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Reporter: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Reporter: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Reporter: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

Let's be clear--there's nothing wrong with not knowing an answer to a question. After almost 7 years of Bush, any attempt to actually answer the question that is posed to you is refreshing. It's also not that incredibly horrible that McCain cannot instantly recall his votes on specific proposals, or that he reflexively told the reporter a sensible position that was one he has actually never held. What seems so troubling is the ease with which McCain was knocked off guard by a logical question involving a topic that has been in the public consciousness for over 25 years now. Even with the reporter's leading follow-ups, McCain was "stumped." I'm afraid one doesn't have to be an employee of the Centers for Disease Control to know that condoms definitely reduce the risk of STDs and also reduce the risk of transmission of HIV.

This sort of dissonance between our political leaders' reality-the highbrow-and the meek underclass' reality-that lowbrow-is one of the main reasons the United States continues to have ill-performing schools, outmoded healthcare bureaucracies, and an intractable four-year War. The lifelong politicians seem to want to solve problems that have evolved into different animals.

It is simple to blame this awkward moment on McCain's age, but obviously it is much more thematic and systemic than that.

The other problematic issue here is that McCain trusts Tom Coburn to provide him with helpful advice on these aspects of healthcare issues. Senator Coburn is a self-aggrandizing "values" wielder, a former Baptist deacon and obstetrician who desires the death penalty for abortionists and blames homosexuals for abortion rates. Coburn was among those who loudly complained when NBC wanted to air an unedited version of the oscar-winning Schindler's List during primetime in 1997, due to nudity (at a holocaust camp) and violence (a War). Coburn must not know about MTV.

What's worse and directly on point is that during the same year, Coburn "proposed a bill that would have ended anonymous testing for HIV/AIDS and required reporting the names of those who tested positive to public health authorities." This is who McCain looks to on healthcare issues?

When Senator McCain says he has "never gotten into these issues before" it isn't too hard to believe. Tom Coburn's healthcare realism is more like straight talk for 1907 and not 2007. I wouldn't be surprised if the HIV policy papers he supplies McCain even fail to mention lambskin.

It's 2008, and we need leaders who have a general awareness of what the present offers citizens on-the-ground, and who offer solutions fit for our times. Preaching abstinence is important, but in the face of America's sexual-activity in 2008, preaching abstinence alone is comparable to sending soldiers to battle without proper armor.

Here's a proposal for McCain's position on contraception: have one.

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