Shape shifter

John McCain is reputed to be a straight talker. And it’s true that McCain is often blunt (i.e., aggressive) in the way he expresses his opinions. If that’s what people mean by “straight talker”, the label is accurate.

But with respect to policy positions, there’s some evidence that McCain is more of a shape-shifter than a straight talker. Here’s the latest example, neatly illustrated by CNN:

  1. McCain used to be open to a windfall profits tax on oil companies; but now he is mocking Obama for supporting such a tax; and
  2. McCain used to support an existing, federal ban on offshore drilling; but now he says the ban should be lifted.

These policy shifts are important, because McCain wants Americans to believe that he’s serious about tackling climate change. But if McCain’s policy is to provide a supply of (relatively) cheap oil, people will have less incentive to change their carbon-emitting ways.

What does Obama mean by “windfall profits”? Consider that the five largest oil companies realized a $36 billion profit in the first quarter of this year. Obama proposes,

I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills.

McCain is now on record as opposing that policy. It isn’t surprising that he mocked Obama in Texas, which is the home of big oil.

On another environmental front, Obama and McCain have both expressed support for a cap-and-trade system:

A central authority (usually a government or international body) sets a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that can be emitted. … Companies that need to increase their emissions must buy credits from those who pollute less. The transfer of allowances is referred to as a trade.

Obama’s support for a cap-and-trade approach is unequivocal. But does McCain really support cap-and-trade? He raised some doubts here:

I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time.

The same article makes it clear that McCain has equivocated on this point previously:

It’s not quote mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK, because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That’s the way I call it.

Confused? I am. McCain is not such a straight talker when it comes to his environmental policy.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Random
    Jun 19, 2008 @ 06:01:04

    “I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills.”

    Just a quick thought, but if you are calling McCain a “shape shifter” on this, what word would you use to describe Barack Obama, who in 2005 was one of 85 senators who voted in favour of Dick Cheney’s energy bill which, amongst other things, gave large tax *cuts* to the oil companies? (McCain was one of the 12 senators who voted against the giveaway, BTW.)

    Does Obama want to raise taxes on the oil companies or cut them, or is his position conditional on the stage of the electoral cycle? And how is this in any way more consistent than McCain’s position, even as you characterise it?

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Jun 19, 2008 @ 08:03:32

    I don’t know why Obama supported Dick Cheney’s energy bill. Presumably there were elements of it that he thought were worthy of his support at the time.

    It’s fair to change positions as circumstances change. Right now, we’re seeing skyrocketing oil costs that are causing real pain to consumers, coupled with obscene profits for oil companies.

    Right now, the better policy is a windfall tax. Right now, Obama supports that policy; right now, McCain is mocking him for it.

    Also right now, McCain is claiming to be a progressive on the environment. Thus he is advocating two contradictory policies simultaneously: he’s going to support policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, except for these here other policies that will encourage people to continue in the same, harmful-to-the-environment practices that they’re engaging in now.

    In other words, I don’t necessarily object to McCain changing positions. I do object to him trying to have his cake and eat it, too: friend of environmentalists, friend of Big Oil.

    Reply

  3. Random
    Jun 19, 2008 @ 08:50:42

    “I don’t know why Obama supported Dick Cheney’s energy bill. Presumably there were elements of it that he thought were worthy of his support at the time.”

    Well, there is this I suppose on Obama’s relations with Exelon, one of the US’s largest operators of nuclear power stations(from here) –

    “The Illinois-based company also helped Obama’s 2004 senatorial campaign. As Ken Silverstein reported in the November 2006 issue of Harper’s, ‘[Exelon] is Obama’s fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on the 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects … the public will not only pay millions of dollars in loan costs but will risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default.'”

    So it may be the case that he is more in the pocket of Big Atom than Big Oil, whether that represents any significant moral difference is a matter of opinion of course, but it remains a fact that he did not regard the tax cuts for Big Oil as any sort of deal breaker.

    “In other words, I don’t necessarily object to McCain changing positions.”

    And I don’t have any objections to you calling him on it, I do object though to you portraying Obama as being consistent by contrast when the record shows that, at best, he’s no better and probably a great deal worst (at least McCain did vote against the 2005 bill, which was a genuine act of political courage and principle).

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Jun 19, 2008 @ 18:32:12

    I know that atomic energy is controversial. However, it does present an enormous energy source alternative to oil. So Obama may have reasons for supporting nuclear energy that don’t entail being in Big Atom’s pocket.

    Here he is in Iowa in December, acknowledging that atomic energy is sub-optimal, and saying that he prefers other sources of energy — and yet, steadfastly maintaining that nuclear energy may be a legitimate part of the solution to the energy crisis.

    Reply

  5. Random
    Jun 20, 2008 @ 08:40:45

    With all due respect Stephen, but Obama saying nuclear power is sub-optimal in a state where any candidate who adopts an energy policy other than saying that ethanol subsidies are the way to go will crash and burn doesn’t prove anything other than Obama has no problem with saying what his audience wants to hear, regardless of what he actually believes. And yes, he did support ethanol subsidies in Iowa. On the other hand John McCain chose the risk of crashing and burning (which he did) rather than pandering to his audience by renouncing his long held belief that ethanol subsidies are a waste of public money.

    Sorry if this sounds a bit snarky, but I’m feeling even less kindly towards Obama than usual today – his shockingly cynical (albeit widely predicted) decision yesterday to reject public funding, despite the fact that for the last 18 months he’s probably been the leading politician calling on both parties to take it, and for no other reason than he’s realised how much money he can raise privately, has only driven home just how little a commitment from him is worth.

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    Jun 20, 2008 @ 11:56:23

    On ethanol subsidies, I think your criticism is valid. I hope at some point Obama will reverse course. But the clearest evidence that ethanol is not an environmentally-benefical alternative to oil came out recently: i.e., after Iowa. And the food shortage crisis also happened post Iowa.

    But you seem to have missed my point about the video. Obama was challenged on his support for atomic energy, and he conceded that there are problems with it, but ultimately he held his ground. He maintained that atomic energy should be part of the solution despite knowing that it wasn’t what the questioner wanted to hear. The issue I raised in this post is one of consistency: and it seems that Obama has been consistent in his (measured) support for atomic energy.

    As for public financing —

    (1) McCain is in no position to throw stones. He accepted public financing and then violated its conditions (by using it as security on a loan). And currently he is violating the conditions of public financing because he has spent over the limits on his nomination campaign. Every day he continues to spend, he increases his violation of those limits. So McCain’s supposed commitment to public financing rings hollow. He played fast and loose with public financing during the nomination process, but now he wants to tie Obama to it during the general election? How self-serving!

    (2) The point of public financing is to keep industry from wielding undue influence over elected officials. Obama’s funding primarily consists of donations of less than $250 each from approximately 1.5 million donors. To me, that is public financing, by another name. It is the public (not big industry) that finances his candidacy.

    (3) Obama clearly has a valid point about outside spending groups. The Republicans have used those groups to devastating effect (e.g. against Kerry) and McCain has taken a hands-off approach. Whatever they do, he won’t lift a finger to stop them. Whereas Obama has specifically appealed for donors not to give money to those arms-length organizations, and he has managed to gut the support of most of them (with the notable exception of MoveOn.org).

    Yes, you can fault Obama for wriggling out of a commitment. But in effect the Republicans are asking him to roll over and take it when they set out to screw him. And I’m glad Obama is one Democrat who won’t let the Republicans use him for a doormat (or worse).

    It’s about time — witness the telecommunications immunity “compromise” that actually gives the Republicans everything they want.

    Reply

  7. Random
    Jun 23, 2008 @ 07:06:47

    “But the clearest evidence that ethanol is not an environmentally-benefical alternative to oil came out recently: i.e., after Iowa.”

    Hardly. It’s been known for years that promoting ethanol use by subsidising Iowa corn is a lousy idea, and that it only continues because of Iowa’s unique place in the electoral cycle which forces would be presidential candidates to either endorse the idea or start their campaigns with a wipe-out. If an American govenrment was serious about promoting ethanol then they would be removing import tariffs on Brazilian ethanol (made efficiently from sugar cane) instead of subsidising Iowa ethanol (made inefficiently from maize). But then Brazil doesn’t hold primaries in January.

    On public financing – I am not a member of the McCain campaign, and do not speak for it. I do not see why my distaste at Obama’s hypocrisy should be in any way mediated by what the other side has done. That said –

    “He accepted public financing and then violated its conditions (by using it as security on a loan). ”

    This is certainly the standard Democrat smear. The facts remain however that both the McCain camp and (more seriously) the bank itself have denied that public funds were collateral for the loan (the true collateral appears to have been a $4M dollar life insurance policy which McCain was required to take out as part of the loan, and the loan has now been repaid in full anyway.)

    “And currently he is violating the conditions of public financing because he has spent over the limits on his nomination campaign. Every day he continues to spend, he increases his violation of those limits. So McCain’s supposed commitment to public financing rings hollow. ”

    Given that McCain has yet to draw a penny out of the public financing system, I am honestly baffled as to the basis for this accusation. The position is straightforward enough – McCain always said he would take funding for the presidential election, but would fund the primary contest privately. However when his election campaign ran out of cash last year he applied for public funding to tide him over but managed in the end to raise enough cash to do without – there has been a bizarre spat with the FEC over whether, having applied for public money McCain is actually allowed not to take it, but it remains the case he has used no public money on his primary campaign. “Fast and loose”?

    “Obama’s funding primarily consists of donations of less than $250 each from approximately 1.5 million donors. To me, that is public financing, by another name. It is the public (not big industry) that finances his candidacy.”

    This is mere Obama campaign spin, and particularly insulting to the intelligence spin at that. Firstly, the candidates don’t get to define what “public financing” means – the relevant legislation as enforced by the FEC does that. Obama is not Humpty Dumpty – words do not mean just what he chooses them to mean, no more, no less.

    Secondly, it wasn’ t the little people who kept Obama’s campaign funded last year before it took off, it was the likes of Exelon (another interesting factoid – last year Obama received the third highest donations from the oil industry of any Democrat , he was beaten only by Hillary, for doubtless obvious reasons, and Chris Dodd who chairs a relevant Senate committee). As Obama put it when he was still in favour of public funding – “If we’re still getting financed primarily from individual contributions, those with the most money are still going to have the most influence.”

    “Obama clearly has a valid point about outside spending groups.”

    And how is this a point that wasn’t equally valid last year when he took the pledge to abide by the public financing system? Face it – the only thing that has changed since then is that Obama has realised just how much he can raise outside the public finance system. Compared to a tidal wave of cash, how much is a promise worth?

    “The Republicans have used those groups to devastating effect (e.g. against Kerry) and McCain has taken a hands-off approach. ”

    McCain opposed the Swift Vets campaign and defended Kerry (I thought he was wrong to do so as the Swift Vet criticisms looked legitimate to me, but the fact remains that he did so). It is a particularly low blow to use this to criticise McCain. This time round he has also got into fights with those on his own side who are tempted to use tactics such as making an issue of Obama’s middle name or the Muslim smear. By way of contrast, as you are convinced your side is taking the high ground, can you point me to the Obama campaign’s criticism of the disgusting “Alex” ad that MoveOn and a trade union federation have just put out?

    “Whereas Obama has specifically appealed for donors not to give money to those arms-length organizations, and he has managed to gut the support of most of them (with the notable exception of MoveOn.org).”

    This is just a variation of the argument that Obama does not need public finance because he has been far more successful than he expected at the private sort. In any case it’s not strictly true – as well as MoveOn, there was an article in this week’s Economist on how the (Democrat-aligned but formally non-partisan) trade unions are planning to spend a record amount of cash this year.

    “And I’m glad Obama is one Democrat who won’t let the Republicans use him for a doormat (or worse).

    It’s about time — witness the telecommunications immunity “compromise” that actually gives the Republicans everything they want.”

    Obama supports the compromise.

    Reply

  8. Stephen
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 09:53:29

    Suffice it to say that I don’t agree with your arguments. Here’s an alternative point of view:

    I must confess that I’m a little confused why more Democrats are not hitting [McCain] with the fact that he is as we speak breaking the campaign finance laws and specifically breaking the law on accepting public financing. Having opted into the system and gotten the advantage of it he’s now spending freely in defiance of the caps he agreed not to spend over. Not a commitment to Common Cause to try to come to deal, but a legally binding commitment to stay within the public system for the primaries (which, by FEC rules, continues through the nominating conventions). …

    The guy is not only ‘breaking his word’ he’s breaking the law.

    As for Obama’s ties to big industry: McCain is up to his eyeballs in lobbyists with connection to big industry and unsavoury foreign governments. It is absolutely obscene.

    In short, I don’t accept the McCain camp claiming the moral high ground here. And, to repeat, I see nothing wrong with Obama financing his campaign with small donations from 1.7 million small donors.

    Reply

  9. Random
    Jun 26, 2008 @ 08:45:06

    With all due respect, but Josh Marshall is not an impartial commentator. To the best of my knowledge he isn’t even a lawyer (never mind one who specialises in election law), his opinion is neither definitive nor even particularly interesting. As for Mccain, I’ll say again – he hasn’t taken a penny out of the public financing system, so how can he have broken the spending limits? The spending limits only apply when you do take cash out of the system, as is made obvious by the fact that the only punishment the FEC is entitled to pose is to demand a return of the public funds – a fine of zero dollars is a pretty ludicrous concept by any measure. This whole story is nothing more than an unpleasant smear tactic aimed squarely at McCain’s reputation for probity. On which subject –

    “McCain is up to his eyeballs in lobbyists with connection to big industry and unsavoury foreign governments. It is absolutely obscene.”

    It is impossible for any politician to have a career in Washington without making some contact with lobbyists of course, but the idea that there is anything particularly unusual about the scale of Mccain’s contacts is nonsense. In fact the only thing that’s “obscene” about it is how little value for money they are getting. Consider earmarks (that charming device whereby politicians attach spending commitments to usually unrelated bills as a way of doing favours for lobbyists or just bribing voters with their own money )- McCain is unique in that he is the only serving senator who has never asked for a single penny in earmarks in his entire career. Obama by contrast has asked for $740 million (and had $220 million approved) – genuinely impressive work for somebody who has only been in the senate for 2.5 years.

    “And, to repeat, I see nothing wrong with Obama financing his campaign with small donations from 1.7 million small donors.”

    Neither do I, if that’s what he’d planned to do all along. What i’m objecting to is not just the fact that he has broken his word (all politicians do that at some point), but the sheer brazeness of it. In Obamaworld, morality is turned on it’s head – the breaking of a oft-stated promise becomes not merely a necessary but regrettable step (if he had actually phrased it this way I probably wouldn’t mind that much), but something actively to be praised and celebrated as a patriotic, selfless gesture. Stephen, you have posted often and cogently on the subject of ethics, do you really not understand why this is a problem?

    Reply

  10. Stephen
    Jun 27, 2008 @ 08:33:03

    I understand why breaking a commitment is a problem, of course. But I also see (a) that McCain isn’t in a position to throw stones (see below) ; and (b) that violating this particular commitment doesn’t lead to a consequence that is, in and of itself, unethical.

    McCain would like to make a big deal of it, for obvious reasons, but I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    As for McCain:

    David Plouffe brought a prop to his briefing with reporter: a copy of John McCain’s signature on a state election document in which he attested that he’d be taking public financing.

    “John McCain is spending tens of millions of dollars, we believe, unlawfully,’ he said, waving the document.

    The details of the argument over whether McCain used an acceptable or unacceptable loophole to secure a loan with the possibility of public financing is now before a court in a DNC lawsuit and subject to the FEC’s consideration.

    “John McCain signed his name, ‘John McCain,” Ploufe said. “He got on the ballot attesting he would be in the primary system.”

    “They’re out there throwing stones in glass houses on this,” he said of McCain’s attacks on Obama on public financing.

    This isn’t a smear. If Obama broke his commitment, so did McCain. He signed the document, and used the prospect of public funding as surety for a loan. And, if he committed to take public funds for the nomination campaign, he sure isn’t acting like he’s bound by that commitment.

    Re lobbyists: look at this chart. McCain is surrounded by lobbyists to an extraordinary extent.

    Reply

  11. Random
    Jun 27, 2008 @ 09:26:21

    “As for McCain:”

    Oh, good grief – David Plouffe is Obama’s campaign manager (a fact your source did not see fit to mention and which I assume you are unaware of as you don’t mention it either). If a mere accusation from the Obama campaign is assumed to be proof of guilt in advance of any legal proceedings, then is there anything McCain can ever be innocent of? Frankly, it’s not a little bit sinister that the Obama campaign is resorting to such tactics to at best distract and, at worst shut down, the McCain campaign, especially when we consider that Obama has form with this sort of dirty politics.

    Incidentally, Plouffe is also the “P” in AKP Message & Media, a Chicago based lobbying firm that Obama has a long standing relationship with. For that matter, the “A” is David Axelrod, who is currently the Obama campaign’s chief strategist, they are hardly the only lobbyists in the Obama camp either, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any cool graphics to link them all together. What was that about “obscene” connections again?

    Reply

  12. Stephen
    Jun 30, 2008 @ 13:12:06

    I know David Plouffe is Obama’s campaign manager. As for Ben Smith, he didn’t mention it because his blog is entirely about the Democratic candidates in this election. His readers are well aware of who Plouffe is.

    You gloss over the point that Plouffe was brandishing a document with McCain’s signature on it, committing himself to public financing, and pledging to stay within the spending limits. It is not a “mere” (i.e. unsubstantiated) accusation from the Obama camp.

    McCain has gone back on his pledge, after using the prospect of public funds as surety for a loan. This is at least unethical and perhaps illegal. That’s why his actions are under investigation.

    As for lobbyists, there is no comparison between Obama and McCain. There’s plenty more data out there on this topic. For example, I’d say that having a lobbyist as your top economic policy advisor is particularly problematic. Even worse if said advisor is a Vice Chairman of a Swiss uber-bank that is the target of a major criminal investigation.

    Still want to quibble over my use of the word “obscene”? The shoe fits.

    Reply

  13. Random
    Jul 01, 2008 @ 09:08:10

    “I know David Plouffe is Obama’s campaign manager…. His readers are well aware of who Plouffe is.”

    But yours aren’t (I had to google him and had a genuine WTF moment when I read that) – I’m slightly shocked that you don’t seem to understand why this is relevant. Plouffe, to put it at it’s absolute mildest, is not a disinterested searcher after justice here and should not be portrayed (even by omission) as one.

    “You gloss over the point that Plouffe was brandishing a document with McCain’s signature on it, committing himself to public financing, and pledging to stay within the spending limits.”

    And you’re glossing over the fact that McCain wrote to the FEC on Feb 6th (i.e. long before he got anywhere near the spending limits) formally withdrawing from public funding, which, as he had yet to take a penny of public money, he was perfectly entitled to do. Any requirement to abide by the rules surely ended at the point. Frankly the only point of substance left is the surety issue, and as both the McCain camp and the bank in question have publicly and heatedly denied this is the case -and have provided evidence to this effect (the loan documents apparently specifically say the bank has no claim on public funds as part of the loan repayment) – I think they are entitled to expect we adopt an “innocent until proven guilty” approach and await the verdict of the FEC.

    As for McCain’s “top economic policy advisor” – oh, come off it. Phil Gramm isn’t a lobbyist. He’s a respected fomer senator who once (briefly) ran for president himself and was rather more recently seriously considered for the post of Treasury Secretary. His qualifications to give economic advice are obvious, and the reason why he’s on McCain will have everything to do with the years the two spent in the senate together and nothing to do with Gramm’s work for UBS. It’s notable that the chart you linked to earler doesn’t even include Gramm amongst its rogue’s gallery.

    BTW, off-topic but praise where it’s due – I was very impressed with the way Obama slapped down Wesley Clark’s attempts to decry McCain’s military service the other day. This is the sort of thing we need to see more of.

    Reply

  14. Stephen
    Jul 02, 2008 @ 09:35:28

    My apologies for not making it clear who David Plouffe was. I wasn’t trying to slip it past anyone, I just forgot that mosts folks haven’t followed this process as obsessively as I have. Plouffe’s name is as familiar to me as Mark Penn or Terry McAuliffe.

    McCain wrote to the FEC on Feb 6th (i.e. long before he got anywhere near the spending limits) formally withdrawing from public funding.

    Perhaps, but he had been running for six months at that point. (He accepted public funds in late August 2007.) You can’t opt in for six months and then opt out at will six months later. There are rules governing the process — and McCain is outside those rules.

    In the meantime, he used the prospect of public funds as surety for a loan. You say it isn’t so; but neither the FEC nor the courts have ruled on it yet. The FEC is unable to meet because they can’t form a quorum. That puts McCain in an awkward spot: not only because of the loan controversy, but because he can’t back out of the public funding arrangement without the FEC’s approval.

    The jury is still out on whether McCain has committed an illegal, or at least unethical act: but there is no question that McCain is flouting the rules that govern the public financing process. It’s McCain the maverick in action; but sometimes it’s unlawful to play the maverick. Meanwhile, he’s casting stones at Obama.

    Re Gramm: OK, he’s not a lobbyist. But he is a vice-chairman for a Swiss bank that’s under investigation for some very questionable practices. And he’s McCain’s economic policy advisor. Face it: your preferred candidate is surrounded by questionable people.

    Reply

  15. Random
    Jul 03, 2008 @ 04:34:56

    “Perhaps, but he had been running for six months at that point. (He accepted public funds in late August 2007.)”

    No, he didn’t. He applied and was declared eligible in August 2007. He never accepted a penny of public funds, and no evidence whatsoever has been offered that he breached any rules before withdrawing from the system.

    “In the meantime, he used the prospect of public funds as surety for a loan. You say it isn’t so;”

    It isn’t me. Both the McCain campaign and the bank in question have vigorously denied this, and have produced documentation to the contrary. The only evidence to the contrary seems to be fever dreams of the left wing smear machine.

    “but neither the FEC nor the courts have ruled on it yet. The FEC is unable to meet because they can’t form a quorum. ”

    And the reason they couldn’t form a quorum? Because the Democrat majority in the Senate has been refusing to vote on Bush’s nominees in the hope of postponing filling the posts until after the election when president Obama can submit a more amenable (read: partisan) slate of nominees (I beleive they have now voted on the slate in the hope of getting the FEC to go after McCain).

    Look, it’s obvious that this is an issue on which our worldviews are so far apart that having a meaningful discussion is becoming impossible – I’m happy to wait until after the FEC rules if you are (prediction – I think they’ll come back basically exonerating McCain, with at worst one or two technical criticisms probably relating to the way he withdrew from the process, but no serious sanctions being offered. YMMV of course).

    Oh and as for

    “But he is a vice-chairman for a Swiss bank that’s under investigation for some very questionable practices……Face it: your preferred candidate is surrounded by questionable people.”

    If you believe links to UBS are such a moral problem, here’s a statistic for you. According to opensecrets.org donations to the Obama campaign from UBS exceed those to the McCain campaign by something like 10:1. Face it: your preferred candidate is surrounded by questionable people.

    Reply

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