Lately, the cable TV pundits have taken to filling the minutes between Viagra commercials with breathless discussion of the relative qualifications of the two Democratic candidates for president. This is not entirely their fault, of course. Hillary Clinton has largely staked her bid for the White House on the proposition that she, rather than rival Barack Obama, is fully prepared the lead the country into the next decade. Obama, in response, has questioned whether eight years as First Lady really contributed anything meaningful to his opponent's curriculum vitae (and yes, there is a subtle tinge of sexism to that position, but we'll leave it for another day).
In all the Democratic crossfire, one question has received surprisingly little attention from the talking heads: if we’re going to talk about qualifications, exactly how prepared is John McCain for the nation's top job. He has, of course, warmed a seat in the United States Senate for more than two decades, but his lengthy incumbency is hardly his most appealing calling card. Rather, McCain's Vietnam experience is constantly trotted out as de facto evidence of his fitness to enter the Oval Office. A few reporters have even gone so far as to suggest that commanding a squadron of fighter pilots somehow represents executive experience, something that Obama and Clinton do not have.
For quite a while, it looked as though McCain would be able to slide past the great qualifications war without so much as a cursory inspection of his credentials. This week, however, he brought himself back into the conversation in the worst possible way. Speaking in the Middle East, he announced that Shi'a Iran had made common cause with Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq. The gaffe was so great that one of the roadies on McCain's world tour, Dempublican Senator Joe Lieberman, had to whisper into the great man's ear that he should have mentioned "extremists" rather than bin Laden's Shi'a-hating outfit.
To be sure, everyone except Hillary Clinton is allowed one free blunder on the campaign trail, but it did not take long to uncover the fact that McCain had been publicly mixing oil and water for quite some time now. His slip-up in Jordan was far from the first time that the senator had made a mistake akin to talking about the British alliance with the IRA during the troubles in Northern Ireland. There is a rule in the proofreading business: if you misspell a word once or twice, it's a typo. If do you so more than that, it becomes clear that you are simply ignorant of the proper spelling.
And that, for McCain, is the best-case scenario. Perhaps he has spent his long years as one of the Senate's leading foreign policy voices utterly unaware of one of the most consequential splits in the Islamic world. Maybe he has come to accept that a Muslim is a Muslim, a terribly misguided—and arguably bigoted—view of the world. Certainly, this sort of information deficit is not unprecedented: on a good day, Ronald Reagan understood as much about the outside world as a second year drama major. But Reagan never claimed that foreign policy expertise was his major selling point.
Again, that's the best-case scenario. The less appealing story is that John McCain knows his Shi'a from his Sunni, but has chosen to lie to the American people anyway. Now why would he do that? Well, al Qaeda remains Public Enemy #1, the terrorist authors of the horrible September 11 attacks, the embodiment of all that is evil. If the Republicans ever hope to build a consensus in favor of action against Iran, especially after the ruinous consequences of the current war with Iraq, it would be helpful to convince the rubes that these two mortal enemies, Osama bin Laden and the Iranian ayatollahs, are joined at the hip and poised to reduce Albuquerque to rubble. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney spent the past seven years blurring the lines between fundamentalist al Qaeda and secular Saddam Hussein. Perhaps McCain has learned his lesson from their effective deceit.
So take your pick: either John McCain, the supposed master of foreign policy, has trouble keeping America's enemies straight, or he has willfully set out to bamboozle a frightened American public into buying into yet another unnecessary war. Either way, this seems far bigger than anything Jeremiah Wright or Geraldine Ferraro has ever said on their very worst days. For the moment, even McCain's cable TV cheering section has been forced to notice. The question is whether they will now let this story fade away.
Actually, that's not really the question. Of course, they'll let this one blow over. Not only do they like McCain, they are also constantly on the prowl for new material. It will be up to the Democrats to hammer this point home again and again.