Russert failed to challenge McCain's Iraq, ethanol claims

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Meet the Press host Tim Russert failed to challenge Sen. John McCain on the feasibility of his call for sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and his statement that "[w]e're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." Russert also failed to note that at the time McCain made a 2005 statement that ethanol mandates are "harmful" and "will result in higher gasoline costs for states," the price of oil had risen past the threshold at which McCain had previously claimed that ethanol mandates "make sense."

On the November 12 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert failed to challenge Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) call for sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and his statement that "[w]e're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." Russert might have asked where the extra forces would come from, given that McCain himself has acknowledged that sending 20,000 more soldiers into the region would require increasing active Army and Marine forces by 100,000. Russert also might have challenged McCain on the feasibility of having such a force ready within McCain's time frame of "the next several months."

Also, Russert quoted to McCain portions of an October 31 Fortune article accusing him of "flip-flop[ping]" on using ethanol as a fuel additive, noting that McCain recently said he is a " 'strong' ethanol supporter," despite having said in November 2003 that "[e]thanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality," and stating in June 2005 that ethanol mandates are "harmful" and "will result in higher gasoline costs for states." McCain claimed he had not shifted his stance, saying: "I'm not embracing ethanol. I said when oil is $10 a barrel, ethanol doesn't make much sense. When it's $40 a barrel, it does make sense." About his June 2005 statement, McCain said: "I don't think I said that at $60 a barrel. I said it when it was $10 a barrel or $9 a barrel. But I think it has a profound influence when, when oil is as high as it is." Russert failed to note, however, that the Fortune article specifically reported that when McCain issued his June 2005 statement attacking ethanol, oil prices had pushed past $50 per barrel -- which as Fortune pointed out, is more than $10 beyond the threshold at which McCain claimed ethanol "does make sense."

On the November 12 broadcast of Meet the Press, McCain called for more troops, and indicated that he was pushing for a quick resolution to the war in Iraq, ostensibly "within the next several months":

RUSSERT: And let me show you the exit poll, Senator, from this past Tuesday. The war in Iraq -- do you approve it? Voters, 43 approve, 57 disapprove. Look at independent voters; 35 approve, 65 percent disapprove. You can't be elected president without those independent voters, and 2-to-1 they're saying they disapprove of the war.

McCAIN: Well, first of all, I believe that a lot of Americans trust my judgment on issues such as this because of the experience and background that I have. Of course they're frustrated; they have every reason to be frustrated. I am frustrated. The question is, is what's the solution? And I believe that a withdrawal, or a date for withdrawal, will lead to chaos in the region, and most military experts think the same thing. I believe that there are a lot of things that we can do to salvage this, but they all require the presence of additional troops.

Now, if you want to -- to give up on -- on Iraq, then fine, and take the consequences. I think there will be chaos in the region. But we need to control the -- this insurgency, we need to embed people with the police and the military, we need to clear and hold -- and "hold" is the important part -- so we can expand areas of security. There's a lot of things that we can and must do. But if we don't want to do that, fine, but that is a decision that I think will have profound consequences. I'm not prepared to go to an American family and tell them, "Well, you know, we'll -- you just stay there for a while and we'll delay this withdrawal and defeat for a year or two." I'm not prepared to tell them that. I'm prepared to tell them that if we have the will to win, we will do what's necessary to win. But I'm not interested in seeing a scene of the American embassy on the -- the roof of the American embassy in Saigon multiplied a thousandfold.

[...]

RUSSERT: Bottom line for John McCain is if there's no consensus to send more troops to Iraq and, quote, "win" --

McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: -- then, rather than delay withdrawal for a year and let others die, bring the troops home.

McCAIN: I, I think you -- it's -- I can't say that specifically, but I certainly wouldn't support a proposal that leads to eventual defeat, that I am convinced that would lead to eventual defeat. And, look, if you talk to most military experts, we're in a critical and crucial time. We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months.

[...]

McCAIN: I would advocate, first, going in the Sunni areas and getting that area under control, so that we can show them that -- the Shia -- that they don't need the Mahdi Army in order to protect themselves from Sunni attacks, that that's probably the best tactical move that we could make. The present situation is unacceptable.

Americans are frustrated, we understand that. And again, I want to tell you, I'm not interested in telling some young person's loved ones that we're sending them over there in order to delay what may be an inevitable defeat.

[...]

RUSSERT: It sounds as if McCain is saying either send more troops in, secure the country and win, or make the decision and get out.

McCAIN: I think that that's pretty much my position. Maybe it's more nuanced than that. I'd be glad to hear what the Baker proposal -- [Iraq Study Group] commission proposal is. I'll be glad to listen to different ideas. But I know this, that unless we do something different, then obviously there is going to be failure in the region.

However, as noted by the weblog Eschaton (written by Atrios, Media Matters for America senior fellow Duncan Black), McCain said on October 27 that sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq "means expanding the Army and Marine Corps by as much as 100,000 people." Russert failed to challenge McCain on whether or not his plan to increase the number of troops was even possible, given his narrow time frame and personnel requirements. As Media Matters for America documented, McCain appeared on the August 20 broadcast of Meet the Press and stated that more U.S. troops should be sent to Iraq, which prompted no challenge from guest host and NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, despite the fact that Slate's "War Stories" columnist Fred Kaplan, among others, have noted that the number of U.S. troops available for combat duty is extremely limited.

Russert went on to ask McCain about his "profound change" on ethanol:

RUSSERT: For example, ethanol. In 1999, the Iowa presidential debate, I heard you say, "I'm going to tell you things you don't want to hear."

McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: And now John McCain is embracing ethanol.

McCAIN: I'm not embracing ethanol. I said when oil is $10 a barrel, ethanol doesn't make much sense. When it's $40 a barrel, it does make sense. I do not support subsidies for ethanol, and I have not supported it, and I will not. But ethanol makes a lot of sense, particularly our dependence on foreign oil, and my believe that -- my belief that climate change is real and is part of the solution to this climate greenhouse gas emissions problem.

RUSSERT: But that is a profound change, senator. You did say here -- I'll read it to you. "'Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn't create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it. ... Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve our air quality.'" And when oil was $60 a barrel, you issued a press release saying that ethanol would result in higher gasoline prices for your constituents. You've changed your mind, which --

McCAIN: No, I -- I -- I don't -- I don't think I said that at $60 a barrel. I said it when it was $10 a barrel or $9 a barrel. But I think it has a profound influence when -- when oil is as high as it is.

RUSSERT: In 2000, you avoided the Iowa caucuses, by and large, and focused on New Hampshire. This time, will you go all-out in Iowa, if you run?

The October 31 Fortune article, titled "McCain's Farm Flip," noted that McCain's "flip-flop" on ethanol was "absurd":

For a politician like McCain, the stakes go far beyond a little name-calling. When McCain ran for president in 1999 and 2000, he barely campaigned in Iowa, knowing that his anti-ethanol stance wouldn't cut it in corn country.

Four years later, McCain hadn't changed his tune. "Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn't create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it," McCain said in November 2003. "Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business - tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests - primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality."

Even the most slippery politician would have a tough time wriggling away from a statement as unequivocal as that one, yet McCain's Straight Talk Express has been taking some audacious detours during recent trips to Iowa.

In a flip-flop so absurd it'll be a wonder if it doesn't get lampooned by late-night comedians - not to mention opponents' negative ads - McCain is now proclaiming himself a "strong" ethanol supporter.

"I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects," he said in an August speech in Grinnell, Iowa, as reported by the Associated Press.

"Well, at least now we know he's serious about running for president," quips Brown University presidential politics expert Darrell West, upon being told of McCain's ethanol about-face.

In Grinnell, McCain said he still opposes subsidies but indicated his attitude softened after oil prices crossed $40 a barrel. There's just one problem: in June 2005 - when oil was $60 - McCain's office put out a press release warning that the ethanol mandates in the 2005 energy bill would result in higher gasoline prices for his constituents. (He was right, but lowans don't care.)

McCain and Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) issued a June 28, 2005, press release denouncing the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, singling out specifically the bill's ethanol mandates:

One example from the bill that is harmful to Arizona is the mandate that Americans use eight billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2012. Currently, Americans consume only 3.4 billion gallons. Such mandates will result in higher gasoline costs for states, like Arizona, that do not have an abundant in-state supply of renewable energy or who do not produce their own ethanol.

As the Fortune article noted, at the time of this press release the price of oil was well above the $40 per barrel threshold at which McCain claimed ethanol "does make sense," which Russert failed to note. According to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, oil reached $51.22 per barrel in the United States on June 24, 2005 (according to the Associated Press, as Fortune noted, the price of oil was $59.97 per barrel on June 28, 2005), and, except for five weeks in November and December 2005, has stayed above $50 per barrel ever since.

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