What John McCain Meant, and Why It Doesn’t Matter

The story about John McCain telling a reporter for the Orange Country Register that he doesn’t remember the last time he pumped gas or what it cost is picking up velocity. Only now it turns out he does know. Via Patterico’s Pontifications by way of John Cole, McCain was quoted by Environment News Service, on June 18, as follows:

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain of Arizona also called for an increase in domestic oil production from offshore drilling Tuesday during a speech in Houston, Texas, which the candidate called “the oil capital of America.”

“The price of a gallon of gas in America stands at more than four dollars. Yesterday, a barrel of oil cost about 134 dollarsm” said McCain. “And various oil ministers and investment firms have confidently informed us that soon we can expect to pay 200 dollars for every barrel, and as much as seven dollars for every gallon of gas.”

Patterico sees this as proof that liberal bloggers who wrote that John McCain doesn’t know how much a gallon of gas costs right now were “lying”:

Think Progess cites this as evidence of “McCain’s cluelessness about gas prices.”

But McCain isn’t saying he doesn’t know the price of gas. He is saying that he doesn’t remember the last time he pumped his own gas, and how much it cost then.

So, does John McCain know the cost of a gallon of gas in America? Yes, he does. Here’s a news story from June 18:

“The price of a gallon of gas in America stands at more than four dollars. Yesterday, a barrel of oil cost about 134 dollarsm” said McCain.

Again, that McCain quote is from June 18 — six days before the O.C. Register interview that Think Progress uses to claim McCain doesn’t know the price of gas.

This Think Progress post is a lie. At best, the story is that McCain doesn’t remember the last time he pumped his own gas. Even that is a non-story, since nobody pumps their own gas while on the campaign trail. Someone ask Obama when he last pumped his own gas.

James Joyner comes to a different conclusion:

It stands to reason, then, that McCain knew the price at the time of the interview. It would seem, then, that he’s guilty merely of giving an irritated and dismissive answer to what he perceived as a “gotcha” question rather than being out of touch.

In my book, that still makes him out of touch. The high price of gas is extremely important to ordinary people who aren’t multimillionaires running for president with a Secret Service detail to take care of all the mundane details. Which means that McCain is being dismissive about an issue that affects the daily lives of millions of Americans. It should not be “irritating” to answer such a question.

And then there is that flippant “And frankly I don’t see how it matters.”

It matters because voters want to see that the candidates who are asking for their votes understand how difficult it is to struggle every day with the problem of how you’re going to get to work when you can’t afford to fill up your tank. More than that, people want to get some sense that the next president of the United States — even if he does not directly have to deal with the high cost of gas — possesses some minimal capacity to feel for those who do.

It’s crystal clear from everything John McCain chooses to say and the way he chooses to say it, that he does not. And that is why McCain’s impatience at a question about the price of gas angers and upsets as much as it does.

16 Responses to “What John McCain Meant, and Why It Doesn’t Matter”

  1. ChenZhen says:

    With all due respect Kathy, I think you, John, and the Think Progress folks are all suffering from some bug that causes reading comprehension problems. And I say this as an Obama supporter…

    …lets look at this again…the question:

    When was the last time you pumped your own gas and how much did it cost?

    Note the “when was”, and the “did” (as opposed to “does”).

    McCain saw this as an attempt to make him look out of touch (since him saying “20 years ago”, and “$1.35” would have), so he really had no choice but to deflect it. It was a gotcha question. No where in there did anyone ask him what the current price of gas was.

    It’s kinda silly to make a big deal out of it.

  2. Kathy says:

    Uhhhh, no, he could have said, “Well, the last time I pumped my own gas, it cost a lot less than it does now. But of course my situation is very atypical, and over $4 a gallon, which is what gas costs now in most places, is a terrible hardship for most Americans who rely on their cars to get to work.”

    There! That wasn’t so hard, was it? Maybe I should take McCain’s place on the campaign trail.

    And all of the above having been said, why would I want to make a big deal out of McCain’s cluelss comment? I’m voting for Obama, not McCain. This incident is just one more example of how disconnected McCain is from the reality most of us live in.

  3. ChenZhen says:

    Well, sure, he could have handled it with more tact. As armchair political analysts that have had all day to think about it, I’m sure we could come up with something terrific.

    But it doesn’t change the blatant misrepresentation. I scrolled through 100 comments in that TP thread reading how everyone honestly thought that McCain doesn’t know the price of gasoline.

    I want Obama to win, but let’s do it with some intellectual honesty and credibility.

  4. Craig says:

    ChenZhen, I’m afraid this is what passes for political commentary in the blogosphere today. And its done on both sides.

    I wonder how many showers per day that bloggers who willingly participate in this slimy exercize, have to take to get clean?

  5. tas says:

    I take one a day, usually after working out.

  6. Chief says:

    Maybe I should take McCain’s place on the campaign trail.

    Hey ! ! Hey ! ! Hey ! !
    Whaddya say,

    I say, “Kathy for President ! !”

  7. Kathy says:

    At least I would be capable of clearly and intelligently articulating an answer to a simple question, eh, Chief?

  8. Kathy says:

    But it doesn’t change the blatant misrepresentation. I scrolled through 100 comments in that TP thread reading how everyone honestly thought that McCain doesn’t know the price of gasoline.

    Chen, let me ask you this. If you were at a job interview, and the interviewer asked you, “What are your greatest weaknesses?” are you being asked to list all the things you do badly and all of the ways in which your character is flawed?

    Meaning is conveyed by much more than just words. When that reporter asked McCain, “When was the last time you pumped your own gas and what did it cost?” he was not asking a nostalgia question. He was not looking for an answer like, “Um, let’s see, last time I pumped my own gas was in 1967 and it cost $1.15 a gallon.”

    To begin with, the reporter was asking a question that HE himself had been asked to ask by others — just ordinary Americans. And ordinary Americans are not looking to know what year McCain last pumped gas and what it cost. Ordinary Americans are looking to find out whether McCain and Obama know and understand the seriousness of having to pay $4 a gallon for gasoline — and very soon to be $5, and higher. This is something McCain and Obama do not have to worry about in their own lives. It does not affect their economic well-being or their daily routine at all. I understand that; it’s just the reality of who gets to run for president in this country. But I do want to know that the men who ARE running understand what those gas pump prices mean to ME.

    So you can argue up and down all day and all night that the reporter didn’t ask McCain for the current price of gas, and that McCain did NOT say he didn’t know the current price of gas. Because the answer that McCain did actually give the reporter, actually did answer the question the reporter was really asking and the question people really want the answer to.

    It’s not about “tact,” Chen. It’s about “getting it.” McCain does not get it. It’s as simple as that. “I don’t see why it’s important to know that” does NOT mean, “I don’t see why it’s important to know what gas cost in 1967.” It means “I don’t see why it’s important to understand the significance of $4 a gallon gasoline to people’s lives.” It means, “I don’t see why it’s important to answer your question seriously or thoughtfully, because I don’t spend my time thinking about the millions of Americans who not only can’t find jobs, but can’t get to a job even if they do find one.”

    I believe that most Americans hearing McCain’s answer are going to be more struck by the underlying implications of the way he answered the question, than they are going to be struck by the thought that McCain was talking about the price of gas 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

    It matters the way a candidate answers a question with as much subtext and underlying meaning as the price of gas. McCain answered the question in a way that clearly conveyed he found the question itself irritating and unimportant. That’s what people heard and saw when they read what he said.

  9. tas says:

    Or put in another way, gas prices have doubled since 2005 (when we already thought they were expensive at $2 a gallon). So for somebody who drives a Ford Taurus which gets nearly 400 miles on 20 gallons of gas, filling up used to cost $40 — now it costs $80. If they fill up once a week, their monthly gas costs spiked from $160 to $320; which is practically another car payment + insurance per month.

    In the meantime, incomes have not increased, and high fuel prices have helped lead to other products rising in cost. Coupling this together with the average individual loss of $160 per month to gas prices, it doesn’t take an economic genius to know that this spells B-A-D.

    Presidential candidates should not dismiss this.

    And if anybody thinks that such thoughts qualify me as being so slimy that I must need multiple showers a day to stay clean, why? How?

  10. Craig says:

    Nice strawman, Tas.

    I’d like to point out that in the article in which McCain’s quote is being cherry-picked, he had already answered several questions about the energy issue and the need to provide relief for the American public.

    He then is asked a voter-supplied question which quite obviously is meant to touch on how his personal status has removed him from the day-to-day realities of the “common folk”. It was a very straight-forward question of approximately how long it has been since he filled up his car himself and what the cost was:

    When was the last time you pumped your own gas and how much did it cost?

    “Oh, I don’t remember. Now there’s Secret Service protection. But I’ve done it for many, many years. I don’t recall and frankly, I don’t see how it matters.
    I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of town hall meetings, many as short a time ago as yesterday. I communicate with the people and they communicate with me very effectively.”

    In other words, ‘I don’t recall when I last filled up my own tank, but I have remained in touch with those who do deal regularly with that issue and I understand their concerns.’

    And yes, he knows the current cost for gas. This is from an article on June 18th:

    “The price of a gallon of gas in America stands at more than four dollars. Yesterday, a barrel of oil cost about 134 dollars” said McCain. “And various oil ministers and investment firms have confidently informed us that soon we can expect to pay 200 dollars for every barrel, and as much as seven dollars for every gallon of gas.”

  11. Kathy says:

    In other words, ‘I don’t recall when I last filled up my own tank, but I have remained in touch with those who do deal regularly with that issue and I understand their concerns.’

    In writing, there is a concept called “show, don’t tell.” It means that, as a writer, you don’t explain what a character is doing, thinking, or feeling, you show it.

    When John McCain says that he’s gone to hundreds of townhall meetings and he communicates with people and they communicate with him, he was telling, not showing. You may feel differently, but I am not going to decide that a candidate understands my concerns as an American and as a voter unless he shows me that he does. Telling me he goes to meetings and talks to people does not do that for me.

    On the other hand, he had the perfect opportunity to show his understanding when he was asked that question by the reporter for the Orange County paper. Instead, he shluffed it off as an irritation and an irrelevancy.

    Okay. So now I know that he doesn’t understand, no matter how many meetings he goes to or how many people he talks to.

  12. tas says:

    Thanks for calling my explaination of what families are actually going through a “strawman”, Craig. Perhaps you’d like to show me where my explanation is wrong? Are families not losing money to high gas prices?

  13. ChenZhen says:

    Man, I never get this lucky on my blog. I mean, I’ve got these emblems to tag a “straw man” (tas) and “magic uprights” (Kathy) and I hardly ever get to use them. But sure enough we have ’em both in one thread here.

    I really should be taking this out on TP though. They’re the ones who kick-started this whole charade. Sorry ’bout that.

  14. tas says:

    Your strawman is a strawman, Chen. Let’s dissect and see why:

    A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.[1]

    Misrepresentation, of course, depends on how you view ones position — this is very subjective. It is my opinion that McCain does not realize what high gas prices really mean to families. I could point out other examples — take his gas tax holiday. It’s a patronizing joke. And if McCain cared so much about gas prices, why hasn’t he championed the development of more alternative fuels throughout his career? ANd why has he become the candidate that those who want to attack Iran will vote for?

    Of course, you could call all of these arguments “strawmen” too, I call them opinions based on reason.

    To “set up a straw man” or “set up a straw man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.

    This demeans the fact that my argument was an accurate representation of how gas prices look to Americans, in the face of inflation and wage stagnation. I did not cherry pick one fact out of a complicated situation and claim that the fact represented the whole situation — people really are paying an assload of money for gas these days, and it really is straining their budgets.

    Often, the straw man is set up to deliberately overstate the opponent’s position.[1]

    It was McCain who told a reporter that past gas prices don’t matter. Would you like me to get the quote again?

    A straw man argument can be a successful rhetorical technique (that is, it may succeed in persuading people) but it is in fact a misleading fallacy, because the opponent’s actual argument has not been refuted.[2]

    Also, labeling an argument as a “strawman” can serve as a substitute for name calling and character assassination, when the debater otherwise has no points.

  15. Craig says:

    As silly as this back-and-forth has become, I’ll venture forth to explain it one last time. If you read the FULL interview that he gave the reporter, he answered several questions on the energy situation and a few ways it can be dealt with (and he referenced how the American public needs some relief from these costs). So he quite obviously has some short and longer-term ideas to improve our energy challenges, regardless of whether you agree with them or not. He then is asked a queston that quite obviously (unless someone wants to purposely bend the meaning) implies that McCain’s political status has shielded him from personally dealing with common issues like gas prices. His answer very clearly pertains to the relevance of when he last filled his own gas tank to the qualifications needed to understand and address our energy problems. He states that it is not relevant, since he communicates regularly with people on such pocketbook issues through hundreds of town hall sessions.

    You decided to change the meaning of McCain’s answer from “No, I don’t think its relevant as to when I last filled my gas tank myself to be able to understand the issue” to “It doesn’t matter to me how much gas prices have gone up”. You have deliberately altered the meaning of his answer to be able to establish a more inflammatory claim that McCain doesn’t care or understand about how raising prices are impacting regular Americans.

    THAT is your strawman (as if you don’t really understand that point already).

    But the blogosphere will continue to churn out mini-tempests to distract people for 24 hours or so, so that political qualifications start coming down to misdirected quotes or verbal gaffes as opposed to serious discussions. McCain isn’t qualified because he gets angry and says that he doesn’t care about pocketbook issues. Obama isn’t qualified because his minister is a racist, and he thinks there are 57 States in America.

    And so it goes…..

  16. ChenZhen says:

    tas-

    It was McCain who told a reporter that past gas prices don’t matter. Would you like me to get the quote again?

    Oh for heaven’s sake. McCain meant that the last time he actually pumped gas doesn’t matter. The question itself was a suggestive, hostile, irrelevant, “gotcha” type question. I mean, you can practically feel the finger pointed in his face. But he’s right, the fact that he doesn’t pump his own gas doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know about the pain that people are going through, or that he doesn’t know the current price.

    And your strawman is a strawman because you presented this nice anecdote about Ford Taurus and the increase in the cost of driving it, but attempted to use it as what McCain was actually dismissing. Again, what McCain was dismissing the notion that being able to understand the situation was somehow directly related to him physically pumping gas.

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