The alternate reality of John McCain |

The alternate reality of John McCain

Kirk Caraway

Spring break and bulletproof vests don’t go well together. But for John McCain, it’s just another day on the campaign trail.

The one-time GOP frontrunner proclaimed that there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where it’s safe enough to go for a walk, claiming the media is not airing the real progress being made in Iraq, and he set out last week to prove his point.

He took a nice, safe walk through a marketplace just outside the fortress-like Green Zone, supposedly to buy some souvenirs. He was, of course, wearing his leisurely stroll body armor, standard equipment for even the safest neighborhoods in Baghdad. He also had a few friends along, 100 or so armed American soldiers, along with three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships.

If this is a safe neighborhood, wait until you see the bad side of town.

The next day we got to see just how safe this neighborhood really is, as 21 Shiite marketplace workers were kidnapped and executed, most likely to send a message to the Arizona senator that he should pick another market to shop for trinkets. You have to wonder if those people would still be alive if McCain had decided to go somewhere else for spring break.

What McCain proved was how far he has fallen in three short years, going from maverick to frontrunner to has-been.

There was a time when McCain was a breath of fresh air in an overly partisan world. Many independents and Democrats were drawn to his supposedly straight-talking ways, his willingness to tell it like it is instead of repeating the party talking points. Many of them crossed over to vote for him in the Republican primaries in 2000, coming close to upsetting the favored son, George W. Bush. If it hadn’t been for the unscrupulous smears by Karl Rove, McCain might have taken the Straight Talk Express all the way to the White House.

In the first three years of the Bush Administration, McCain was the one Republican that could be counted on to not march to the beat of his party. He bucked Bush on tax cuts, especially after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. He didn’t buy into the Medicare drug benefit, nor did he play along with the corrupt campaign funding system.

He took every opportunity to put his face before the cameras. He knew that as long as he was the one Republican who would oppose Bush, his presence was in high demand. He hit every studio that would have him, from the Sunday morning talk shows to Saturday Night Live.

Then he coyly played with the idea of being Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s running mate in the summer of 2004. That’s when the alternative reality did a U-turn.

I suspect that during his flirtation with the VP spot, Bush’s people took him aside and convinced him he was not cut out to play second fiddle to Kerry. They offered him a deal ” support the president, and he will turn over his political machine for 2008.

The offer must have worked, because McCain put aside any question of his loyalties by not only throwing his support to Bush, but going out on the campaign trail with the man whose dirty tricks cost him the 2000 nomination. So long, maverick.

From then on, he’s backtracked on almost all of the positions that made him so endeared by so many, myself included. He backed off on his criticism of the religious right, sucking up to them for support and money. His distaste for cutting taxes during wartime went away as he voted to extend Bush’s tax cuts last year. And McCain has now fully embraced the very same campaign fundraising techniques he criticized Bush for employing seven years ago.

His straight talk was beginning to show a lot of twists and curves. His bus became the Pander Express.

But there is one issue on which not even the mighty McCain can flip flop: the war in Iraq. He has tied himself to this mounting disaster, and it has torpedoed his campaign.

To save his chances, he needed to summon up that alternate reality again, that we are winning and the streets are safe, and it’s those Democrats who are to blame for all the bad news. His spring break in Baghdad was political theater, staged among a hostile audience who don’t just throw rotten tomatoes. It was a stunt meant to boost his political aspirations.

Instead it became one of those infamous moments, like Michael Dukakis riding in the tank.

John, oh John, where has the Straight Talk Express gone?

– Kirk Caraway is editor of, and also writes a blog on national issues at