Saturday, September 27, 2008

McCain’s Gerald Ford Moment

Looking back on 1976, many historians and casual observers alike will tell you that if President Gerald Ford ever had a chance against challenger Jimmy Carter, that chance disappeared when, during a debate, the president forcefully declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

Ford was given a chance to correct his assertion in a follow-up, but he stuck to his guns, even underscoring the point by saying that Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland were “independent” and “autonomous.”

Here’s what Time magazine had to say about what they called “The Blooper Heard Round the World” back in October of 1976:

Thus, in his second debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford made what could well be the most damaging statement of his career. For any politician, calling Eastern Europe free would be an amazing gaffe. For a President, especially one who is running partly on a campaign theme of experience in foreign policy, the mistake reawakened many voters' suspicions that Ford is a bumbier [sic].

Fast-forward 32 years, and a candidate who is, yes, “running partly on a campaign theme of experience in foreign policy” makes a mistake that is possibly a bigger fo-pol faux pas than Ford’s.

You heard that right, John McCain called the Pakistan of the late 1990s a “failed state.” To quote Max Bergmann, that is simply “not true.”

McCain just badly misstated the history of Pakistan. For someone claiming extensive foreign policy knowledge, this is simply not acceptable.

[emphasis added]

Darn, if that don’t sound familiar. Here (again, courtesy of Bergmann) is what really happened:

Musharraf took power in a military coup in 1999 when he deposed Nawaz Sharif - who recently participated in the latest election. The coup followed the 1999 war in Kashmir with India and was due to a power struggle with Sharif, not due to Pakistan being a "failed state." The United States did not welcome the Musharraf coup. Instead the government of the United States imposed sanctions against this action.

Remember Pakistan had nuclear weapons in 1999. Did McCain believe that there was a failed state that possessed nuclear weapons? If he did he showed no concern at the time.

And I do think that McCain’s blunder is bigger than Ford’s. While Gerald Ford made the mistake of garbling his talking points on whether the Soviets had gotten the better of a 1975 trade pact—and then, rather than correcting his error, tried instead to look more sure and presidential—John McCain seemed to believe his contention that Pakistan was a failed state prior to the military coup that elevated General Pervez Musharraf.

Either that, or McCain was just vamping—which, given the import of the office he seeks and the delicate nature of US-Pakistani relations, is probably worse.

One might say that such behavior is erratic or unstable. To paraphrase Time: it might even have reawakened many voters’ suspicions that McCain is dangerous.

Will such a dangerous gaffe hurt McCain the way Ford’s big-league bumble derailed his campaign? Claiming that Poland was not under Soviet control is thought to have swung votes in crucial northern states with large Polish-American populations. Whether Pakistani-Americans in this cycle’s swing states will take similar offense at McCain’s slight (or whether voters of any stripe will be more basically appalled) remains to be seen.

(h/t Rachel Maddow)

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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