Chin-Scratching Big Think on McCain’s Zapatero Gaffe


Okay, a moment to take stock on the embarrassing McCain gaffe. As noted earlier, despite the fact that McCain repeatedly suggests that Spain is a country in Latin America, McCain’s foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann, insists that McCain wasn’t confused, knew exactly who Zapatero was and meant every word of what he said. So with the McCain campaign sticking to its guns, let’s review the possibilities of what happened here.

Option #1: McCain is so addled he not only doesn’t know who Zapatero is but doesn’t even know where Spain is located.

Option #2: McCain was not confused but actually meant his very belligerent comments about Spain and the Zapatero government (Scheunemann’s line).

Option #3: Through some mixture of confusion and inability to understand the interviewer’s accent, McCain was confused about who he was talking about and decided to wing it, assuming that the person he was being asked about was some other left-wing strong man from Latin America and answering with the standard boilerplate about standing up to America’s enemies.

So let’s run through the options. I do think McCain’s age and sharpness are real issues and legitimate campaign issues. But while I think it’s possible that McCain’s doesn’t remember who ‘Zapatero’ is, I obviously don’t believe that in a calm moment he wouldn’t be able to locate Spain on a map. So let’s rule out option one is a possible but unlikely option.

So what about option #2? It’s true that the neocons around McCain really do not like Zapatero. There are several nonsensical reasons but it at least started with his position against the Iraq War — and the fact that he shortcircuited right wing efforts to exploit the ghastly Madrid train bombings. So it is true that they don’t like him. But this option isn’t credible either for two and possible three reasons. First, in the exchange, McCain repeatedly refers to Spain as a country in Latin America. So if Randy really wants to stick to this explanation, he needs to explain why McCain thinks Spain is a country in Latin America, which I assume he doesn’t want to do. You just can’t have it both ways. Either he misunderstood at some level what he was being asked or he has a presidential disqualifying level of ignorance about geography. The second reason is that back in April McCain explicitly said that he wanted to move past earlier disagreements with Spain and said specifically that he wanted to Zapatero to visit him at the White House if he is elected president. So even if we set aside the geographical confusion, McCain’s camp would need to explain why he’s changed his policy 180 degrees since April. A possible third explanation is that McCain would not take such a confrontational stance toward a NATO ally. But let’s be honest, I wouldn’t put it past him. Still, one and two are dispositive.

So we’re on to option #3. Some version of option #3 is the only credible answer. Whether it was because of ignorance, confusion or inability to understand what the interviewer was saying, McCain clearly didn’t understand what he was being asked. And rather than stop and say, I didn’t understand your question, could you restate it?, (Or, who are you referring to?) he decided to wing it and assumed he was being asked a question about another Latin American strong man bad guy. This is simply the only credible explanation that takes account of all the evidence. I think it’s a generous read to conclude that the only issue was that McCain couldn’t understand the interviewer’s accent. But it’s definitely possible. Even that, though, puts McCain in a pretty bad light.

Equally bad, Randy Scheunemann would rather further inflame Spanish-American relations by ridiculously insisting that McCain knew exactly what he saying than admit the obvious — that he didn’t understand the question. It wouldn’t be that surprising. But given McCain has premised his whole campaign on foreign policy experience they’ve clearly decided it would simply be too damaging to admit he was either a) confused, b) ignorant or c) reckless enough to spout off aggressive remarks when he didn’t even know who he was being asked about.

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