Sheunemann’s Cure Is Worse Than the Disease

Adding on to Kyle’s earlier post about the kerfuffle over John McCain’s response to a Miami radio interviewer’s question about relations with Spain, I think Robert Schlesinger nails the central point: Regardless of McCain’s reason for not appearing to know the geographic location of Spain or the name of Spain’s prime minister, Randy Sheunemann’s explanation made a bad situation worse:

Memo to Randy Sheunemann: Your candidate can do worse things than get confused. Like he could imply that a NATO ally might mean us harm.

I’m pretty sure that John McCain was the former, not doing the latter, in a recent Spanish-language radio interview, but his chief foreign policy adviser apparently insists otherwise.

Sheunemann’s insistence to the Washington Post that McCain knew who he was talking about when he clearly didn’t is not only bizarre but affirmatively counterproductive to the campaign. If McCain was on the ball when he seemed unsure whether the leader of a NATO ally wanted to do harm to us, then he has larger issues than mere confusion—larger even than the difference between “Zapatero” and “Zapatista.”
… After displaying a detailed grasp of his subject matter for three minutes, McCain suddenly goes Sarah Palin, giving generic talking points about being willing to meet with friends, then he goes off on what seems to be a tangent: “And by the way, President Calderon of Mexico is fighting a very, very tough fight against the drug cartels. I’m glad we are now working in cooperation with the Mexican government on the Merida plan, and I intend to move forward these relations and invite as many of them as I can of those leaders to the White House. “

That last bit about inviting as many Mexican leaders as possible to the White House seems to be the key. The guess here is that McCain didn’t catch the question, heard “Zapatero,” mistook it for “Zapatista,” and thought it was a question about Mexican politics. Hence the diversion to Calderon and the discussion of inviting Mexicans to the White House.

The reporter repeated the question and McCain, presumably realizing that Mexico was not the subject at hand, retreated to platitudes about standing up to those who would do us harm.

“Honestly, I have to look at the relations and the situations and the priorities, but I can assure you I will establish closer relations with our friends and I will stand up to those who want to do harm to the United States of America,” he said. “I know how to do both.”
She tried again.

Again, I don’t [he seems on the verge of saying he doesn’t know who she’s talking about]—all I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us and standing up to those who are not, and that’s judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America and the entire region.

The hemisphere? Latin America? The entire region? She tries again: “But what about Europe? I’m talking about the president of Spain.”

This is where McCain should have laughed and said, “Spain? How funny—I misheard you.” Then, he should have spouted his Spain talking point. But he plodded on:

“I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for humans rights, democracy, and freedom. And I will stand up to those who do not.”

(One would think that our NATO ally is with us on those principles and philosophy, but the Spanish did cut and run in Iraq, so you never know.)

All of this would be recoverable if the McCain campaign came out and said: “The reporter had an accent, he had a cellphone, it was simple case of miscommunication. Of course Senator McCain doesn’t think that Spain might wish the United States harm.”

But here’s what Sheunemann told the Post:

“The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain’s willingness to meet Zapatero (and ID’d him in the question so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred). Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview,” he said in an e-mail.

So…John McCain isn’t sure whether Spain is an ally or an adversary?

Now, I’m confused.

The confusion only deepens. Marc Ambinder asked Sheunemann, via e-mail, why McCain’s stance on Spain was so much cooler than it had been in April. Here is Sheunemann’s reply:

Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, writes in an e-mail to me that McCain knew precisely what the questioner meant, and that, indeed, “Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview.”

But in April, McCain strongly hinted that he’d let bygones be bygones and expected to invite Zapatero to the White House.

Why, I asked by way of follow up, did McCain seem to change his mind?

Here’s what Scheunemann e-mailed back:

In this week’s interview, Senator McCain did not rule in or rule out a White House meeting with President Zapatero, a NATO ally. If elected, he will meet with a wide range of allies in a wide variety of venues but is not going to spell out scheduling and meeting location specifics in advance. He also is not going to make reckless promises to meet America’s adversaries. It’s called keeping [your] options open, unlike Senator Obama who has publically [sic] committed to meeting some of the world’s worst dictators unconditionally in his first year in office.

America’s adversaries? Has Sheunemann lost his mind? Spain is a member of NATO and the European Union. “He might want to take a glance back at the NATO charter,” Josh Marshall writes, “which of course commits the United States to treating any attack on Spain as an attack on America.” Then again, as Josh also points out, this kind of demolishes the McCain camp’s argument for conferring NATO membership status on Georgia.

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