By Walt Williams
When Sen. John McCain’s plane landed at the Tri-State Airport in Huntington July 9, it wasn’t because the Republican presidential candidate had any plans to stay long in West Virginia.
Rather, McCain and his staff quickly unloaded from the plane and hopped on his waiting campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. The bus took the candidate across the Ohio River to a rally in Portsmouth, Ohio, a state that he made clear in an interview along the way he thought was critical in the upcoming presidential election.
“The last president to become successful and not carry the state of Ohio was (John F.) Kennedy,” he said. “Every successful presidential candidate since then has had to carry the state of Ohio.”
Ohio is a tempting prize, with its 20 electoral votes and polls showing McCain running neck and neck with Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama.
On the other hand, West Virginia, with a meager five electoral votes, isn’t nearly as eye-catching for the candidates. But McCain said it hadn’t been forgotten.
“It is another one of those states that is going to be a battleground state,” he said. “I intend to be there a lot.”
McCain, 71, clinched the GOP nomination for president in March, beating out other candidates who were generally viewed as more politically conservative. He has a reputation as a political maverick, parting with his own party on issues such as global warming, yet also voicing his support for keeping American troops in Iraq.
He didn’t carry West Virginia during the state Republican caucus in February, with the state GOP instead throwing its support behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — although many McCain supporters voted for Huckabee to deny McCain’s one-time rival Mitt Romney, who is the former governor of Massachusetts, a victory in the state. Still, a poll showed McCain with a small but comfortable eight-point lead over Obama among state voters.
Asked about West Virginia, McCain pointed to his pledge to spend $2 billion a year on clean coal technology if elected president. He also used the opportunity to criticize Obama, who once said that people in the small towns of Pennsylvania and elsewhere cling to guns and religion because of their frustration over a lack of jobs.
“I also believe that areas of West Virginia, like Pennsylvania people, praise their religion and their Second Amendment because of their fundamental beliefs and their faith in America, not because they are embittered by their economic conditions,” McCain said.
Attempts to reach the Obama campaign for this story were unsuccessful.
The main reason for McCain’s short visit to West Virginia was to tout his economic plan, which the campaign had unveiled only a few days earlier. Among its many provisions are calls for more federal spending in clean coal technologies, greater tax breaks for families and reduced barriers to free trade.
The question is whether voters in West Virginia and elsewhere will buy the message McCain is trying to sell. As part of that campaign, the candidate said he was purposely visiting communities where he may not get a majority of votes but could still make his case.
“The message is I’ll be the president for everybody,” he said. “I’ll put my country first, and I want to try to appeal to (voters). Even if they don’t vote for me, I want their support once I am elected because this country is facing very tough times.”
McCain sat in the back of the Straight Talk Express during the course of the 45-minute interview, sitting in the middle of a U-shaped couch above which were mounted two flat-screen TV screens displaying the campaign’s logo.
His wife, Cindy, sat quietly beside him the entire time, usually fiddling with her Blackberry while McCain answered questions. Also along for the ride were several members of his campaign staff, who took pictures, dug up background information for questions and at one point cut the senator’s answer short when they didn’t like a reporter’s question about how much McCain knew about Ohio’s political history.
McCain himself was cordial, often apologizing if he felt he didn’t properly answer a question or had been too short with a reporter. His alleged temper, much touted in news reports, was nowhere to be seen.
The candidate spoke mostly about issues during the interview, only touching on the more political side of campaigning when discussing his plans for winning Ohio. One issue he spoke at length about was energy, particularly his plans to spur clean coal investment.
When asked if he thought “clean coal” was an oxymoron, McCain pointed that technology had been developed to clean emissions responsible for acid rain from coal-burning plants, and he thought the same could be done for greenhouse gas emissions.
“I believe that the reason we succeed there is because we made use of existing technology,” he said. “I think we can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions through clean coal technology as well. A lot of the technology is there — one aspect of it is the cost.”
McCain has been one of a handful of Congressional Republicans to have called for mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. It has put him at odds with many in his own party as well as the coal industry, although he said the latter has come around to the idea that global warming is a problem, recalling a conservation with one West Virginia coal executive about the issue.
“I think we all appreciate now, including the coal industry, that climate change (and) greenhouse gas emissions are an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “In the last 18 months to two years, the coal industry recognized that and has basically changed their position.”
He considers coal-to-fuel technology, which transforms coal to diesel fuel, as one clean coal technology the country could pursue, although that technology has been known to produce twice the amount of CO2 than simply burning coal in power plants. Still, the candidate sees not using the nation’s vast coal reserves as a waste.
“We’re sitting on the world’s largest coal reserves,” he said. “We are dependent of foreign oil to the point where it is an economic, environmental and international security issue, so we must make use of coal, and I believe we can through the use of clean coal technologies.”
On other energy issues, McCain is more in line with his Republican colleagues. He has called for an end to a federal ban on offshore oil drilling and promotes expansion of domestic oil and natural gas drilling. He has proposed building 45 new nuclear plants by 2030, calling them a clean alternative that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. McCain also is proposing a federal fuel tax holiday to help motorists cope with rising gas prices.
Another area where McCain is sticking close with his party is in tax policy.
The candidate has pledged to extend several tax cuts made by the Bush administration that are set to expire in 2011. McCain had at one time opposed the cuts, but later switched his position. Democrats argue the tax cuts largely favor the well-to-do rather than middle-class families.
“To raise taxes during a time of economic difficulties will make the situation far worse,” McCain said, explaining his reasoning.
McCain also is proposing a handful of his own tax cuts. He wants to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, saying the current rate is the second highest in the world and discourages business investment.
For families, he is proposing doubling the exemption for dependents from $3,500 to $7,000 per dependent. McCain said he also would push to eliminate the alternative minimum tax, a potential tax on the middle class Congress has been working to cut off but has so far failed to do so.
“If you want to raise taxes, I’m not your candidate,” he said. “Sen. Obama is. He is the one who wants to raise taxes.”
One of McCain’s pledges is to seek a permanent ban on Internet taxes, saying the Internet is a vital economic engine. However, what exactly he means by no Internet taxes he didn’t make clear. West Virginia is one of several states that has streamlined its sales tax policies in recent years with the hope that Congress may one day allow it to collect sales taxes from online, out-of-state retailers.
McCain said simply that he opposed Internet taxes, although he did concede that state sales taxes are left up to the states.
“I just don’t want to tax the Internet and get into areas of should you tax this part, should you tax that part,” he said.
The issue the candidate spoke most passionately about during the interview was stopping Congressional budget earmarking, more popularly known as pork-barrel spending.
Every year, billions of tax dollars are diverted to local projects across the nation in what critics contend is simply a bid by members of Congress to buy votes. The Washington, D.C.- organization Citizens Against Government Waste reported that $17.2 billion was diverted to pet projects in 2008 alone.
West Virginia has long been one of the top recipients of pork. The state ranked fourth in the nation in 2008, receiving $179 for every man, woman and child within its borders, according to CAGW.
McCain proudly points out that he has never directed a dollar of pork spending back to his home state of Arizona. He also has pledged to veto any bill containing pork, regardless of the bill’s overall importance.
Pork-barrel spending has a corrupting influence on Congress, with former members now sitting in jail as a result of earmarking money in return for favors, he said. It also is patently unfair because federal money is not divvied according to the worthiness of projects but rather because of political connections.
“It is simply wrong — simply wrong — to think that the taxpayers’ dollars are ours’ to dispense with,” he said. “It’s their money.”
He said the result of under-the-table earmarking is projects such as Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere,” in which the state’s delegation was able to set aside more than $200 million in a transportation bill for a bridge to service just 50 people. He later pointed to another project that set aside $3 million to study grizzly bears in Montana.
Pork-barrel spending doesn’t make up a large part of the federal budget, although McCain said only in the world of federal spending would billions of dollars not count as much money. He didn’t see how the public was going to take Congress seriously on the larger issues of Medicaid and Social Security reform if its members were continuing to spend taxpayer dollars on special projects back home.
McCain didn’t address West Virginia’s reliance on pork-barrel spending directly, but he did say he believed it had a corrupting influence on recipients just as it had on members of Congress.
“I don’t think it’s fair even to the people who are recipients of earmarked spending because I think it has a bad effect on them, just like I think it is bad for people to be on welfare unnecessarily,” he said.
One issue that Democrats continue to criticize McCain on is his stance on the occupation of Iraq.
McCain has called for keeping the troops in the country was as long as it takes for it to build up a government that can support itself. Many Democrats, on the other hand, have called for a more immediate withdrawal of troops.
“We are in a conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and I believe that as we withdrawal, which we will withdrawal, the cost of that conflict in Iraq will go down,” McCain said.
“But I also believe that we are in a conflict with radical Islamic extremists,” he added. “I don’t know if it is just going to be confined to the Middle East. I think we can see those manifestations in different parts of the world. Places like Madrid, England, etc. We’re going to have to provide for that security but we have to do it in (the most) sufficient, cost-saving way possible.”
McCain also has unveiled proposals aimed at bringing down the cost of health care as part of his overall economic plan. Among them is a plan to give individuals a $2,500 tax credit and families a $5,000 credit for medical insurance.
Many of McCain’s pledges are coming while he is at the same time proposing to balance the federal budget by 2013. And the president doesn’t act alone, which he acknowledged when asked about how he intended to accomplish many of his goals.
“I think the president has to lay out a policy and work with members of Congress to get legislation passed,” he said. “(Presidents) have to bully pulpit to persuade the American people to get behind policies.”
McCain pointed to a recent poll showing Congress with only a 9 percent approval rating among the American public.
“They’re ready for us to say ‘OK, we’ll work together,’” he said.
When the bus reached the halfway point between Huntington and the rally in Portsmouth, McCain’s staff concluded the interview to make way for a new group of reporters. At that point the senator thanked everyone on the bus and then promised to come back to Ohio in the future. And what about West Virginia?
“Yes sir, I’ll be coming here a lot,” he answered.