I’m not sure how it got started, but the last man standing in the Republican Party’s nominating process circular firing squad, Sen. John McCain, has developed a reputation for “straight talk.” It’s not deserved.I don’t think this is deliberate myth-making by the media or even creative marketing by the senator’s handlers. Instead, it’s probably a case of a broader societal confusion. Somehow, we’ve missed the distinction between talking tough and talking honestly . McCain talks tough. He doesn’t speak honestly. America made a hero out of Ronald Reagan for his supposed straight talk—because he told us precisely what we wanted to hear. We relish John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone in their fictional movie roles since they solve complex problems with simple solutions: bullets and fists. Our favorite movie or television cops are the ones that satisfy the reptilian part of our brains by using Dirty Harry tactics, shortcutting “red tape” and Miranda rights niceties.And now we have the presumptive GOP standard-bearer talking tough … not straight. Will we make that distinction and ask the crucial follow-up questions, or will we stand back admiringly at all the testosterone on parade? An examination of some of his recent positions exposes the basic falsity of his premises.Take his pronouncement that he would, as president, extend his support for Bush’s Iraq War beyond the next year or two; he’s willing to station American troops in that cauldron “for 50 or even 100 years, if necessary.” When Democrats quoted this as evidence of just how dangerous electing him could be to our national treasury and the lives of our young people for the next three generations, he claimed he was being misrepresented, since he wasn’t talking about 100 years of warfare , just 100 years of “presence.”So which is it? A continued occupation by force slowly morphing over the generations into some sort of occupation at the invitation of “grateful” Iraqi survivors—is that the fantasy he expects? Or is he talking about making Iraq into a kind of outpost America, like Okinawa or The Philippines, where our troops are tolerated only because the continued largesse of the American taxpayer buys off the locals?Moreover, even that supposed “clarification” (“presence,” not “war”) of his doesn’t sound all that reassuring. What’s going on now in Iraq is not war as we’ve known it. There is no “enemy” as such, but a constantly evolving cast of factions, sects and alliances, each with international supporters and each with but one common vision: evicting the occupiers (us). In other words, what’s going on in Iraq is already a “presence” … and is probably as good as it can ever get. We have no realistic reason to expect that the lethality or the expense will diminish even slightly for the foreseeable future. And if McCain doesn’t square with the American people and tell them the truth instead of a fairy tale about “winning” a non-existent war, he’s dealing in tough talk, not straight talk.Then there’s his scheme for overcoming pump shock by offering a summertime holiday from the federal gasoline tax. He may have convinced Hillary Clinton of the value of such a gimmick, but not many other Americans seem to have fallen for it. That’s not being honest, it’s simply pandering.Another example of his penchant for substituting movie dialogue for truthfulness, from among the many that could be inventoried, is the senator’s assertion that the path to national fiscal health will pass through the deep canyons of the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans, which he is committed to retaining. Since it has been precisely those tax cuts that have cleavered the hemorrhages into the federal balance sheet from which we are not likely to soon recover, the honest politician should be glad to explain how preserving them will suddenly cause the reverse effect. At least someone in the media ought to ask that question. Could it be contagious, this tendency to deal only in bad-cop dialogue? It sure seems to be epidemic among GOP politicians. Rep. Steve Pearce, running hard for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Pete Domenici, stiff-armed Rep. Heather Wilson by accusing her of voting for a wild-eyed “socialized medicine” scheme in one of his television commercials. Now I’ll be the first to argue that Wilson may have a lot of peculiar votes in her history to answer for, but “socialized medicine”? I don’t think so. Turns out what Pearce labels as “socialized medicine” is actually the well-respected and widely accepted SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program), one of the most successful federal programs for children in the last 20 years. Tough talk, Steve. Not straight, though.And Darren White, our sheriff-who-would-be-congressman, is certainly not immune. In a recent forum on health care, he managed to use the Bush administration’s Hurricane Katrina fiasco as an example of why he opposes turning health care over to the federal bureaucracy. Tough talk, indeed.Unfortunately, he missed the key point about the criticism of FEMA’s failure in New Orleans: It was a classic example of privatized services , not of government-provided services. The neoconservatives in the Bush administration used that disaster to shovel millions of dollars of public money into no-bid contracts with Halliburton, Blackwater, CH2M and their clones— instead of having government employees do the work. To use that as an example of why we should avoid government-provided services is particularly offensive—and not really straight talk.
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