John McCain Gets Confused About Spain, but His Advisers Get Dumb

The GOP nominee probably misheard, but his adviser would rather have it that he got tough on an ally.

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Corrected on 9/22/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the last name of Randy Scheunemann.

Memo to Randy Scheunemann: Your candidate can do worse things than get confused. Like he could imply that a NATO ally might mean us harm.

I'm pretty sure that John McCain was the former, not doing the latter, in a recent Spanish-language radio interview, but his chief foreign policy adviser apparently insists otherwise.

Scheunemann's insistence to the Washington Post that McCain knew who he was talking about when he clearly didn't is not only bizarre but affirmatively counterproductive to the campaign. If McCain was on the ball when he seemed unsure whether the leader of a NATO ally wanted to do harm to us, then he has larger issues than mere confusion—larger even than the difference between "Zapatero" and "Zapatista."

The interview (audio is at the bottom—hat tip to TPM) runs 5½ minutes. The first three minutes are pretty standard: The reporter takes McCain through Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba, asking how the United States should deal with their respective governments. The Arizona senator clearly knows what he's talking about, naming the leaders of different countries and mentioning Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. He gets a zinger in against Barack Obama, asserting that he's never been south of the border in his life. ( Sarah Palin beats Obama in that regard!)

Then the reporter switches hemispheres: "Let's talk about Spain. If you're elected president, would you be willing to invite President [ sic] José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to the White House to meet with you? "

In fairness to McCain, the reporter has a strong accent and sped through Zapatero's name. After displaying a detailed grasp of his subject matter for three minutes, McCain suddenly goes Sarah Palin, giving generic talking points about being willing to meet with friends, then he goes off on what seems to be a tangent: "And by the way, President Calderon of Mexico is fighting a very, very tough fight against the drug cartels. I'm glad we are now working in cooperation with the Mexican government on the Merida plan, and I intend to move forward these relations and invite as many of them as I can of those leaders to the White House. "

That last bit about inviting as many Mexican leaders as possible to the White House seems to be the key. The guess here is that McCain didn't catch the question, heard "Zapatero," mistook it for "Zapatista," and thought it was a question about Mexican politics. Hence the diversion to Calderon and the discussion of inviting Mexicans to the White House.

The reporter repeated the question and McCain, presumably realizing that Mexico was not the subject at hand, retreated to platitudes about standing up to those who would do us harm.

"Honestly, I have to look at the relations and the situations and the priorities, but I can assure you I will establish closer relations with our friends and I will stand up to those who want to do harm to the United States of America," he said. "I know how to do both."

She tried again.

Again, I don't [he seems on the verge of saying he doesn't know who she's talking about]—all I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us and standing up to those who are not, and that's judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America and the entire region.

The hemisphere? Latin America? The entire region? She tries again: "But what about Europe? I'm talking about the president of Spain."

This is where McCain should have laughed and said, "Spain? How funny—I misheard you." Then, he should have spouted his Spain talking point. But he plodded on:

"I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for humans rights, democracy, and freedom. And I will stand up to those who do not."

(One would think that our NATO ally is with us on those principles and philosophy, but the Spanish did cut and run in Iraq, so you never know.)

All of this would be recoverable if the McCain campaign came out and said: "The reporter had an accent, he had a cellphone, it was simple case of miscommunication. Of course Senator McCain doesn't think that Spain might wish the United States harm."

But here's what Scheunemann told the Post:

"The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain's willingness to meet Zapatero (and ID'd him in the question so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred). Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," he said in an e-mail.

So...John McCain isn't sure whether Spain is an ally or an adversary?

Now, I'm confused.

Here's the full audio, courtesy TPM and YouTube. Decide for yourself.