A Cap By Any Other Name…

Mainstream press fails to call McCain's "mandatory caps" gaffe

If a candidate for president unwittingly revealed, at a widely attended press conference, that he either didn’t understand a basic element of one of his own key policy proposals, or wanted to fool the public about it, you’d think the mainstream press would treat it as news. Apparently, you’d be wrong.

At a Monday presser, John McCain was asked: “The European Union has set mandatory targets on renewable energy. Is that something you would consider in a McCain administration?…”

He replied:

Sure. I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met.

Let’s start by noting that, while the question was about renewable energy, McCain’s answer was about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a related but separate issue—suggesting a basic unfamiliarity with the details of energy and environmental policy. Never mind.

Here’s the graver sin: A cap-and-trade system does impose a mandatory cap.

It doesn’t just “establish targets … over time” as goals to shoot for, as McCain’s words imply (“I think those can be met”). Rather, it sets an absolute limit on the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted, then allows polluters to buy and sell emissions permits, which confer the right to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. So it gives companies some flexibility in meeting the cap, by, essentially, putting a price on CO2 emissions, but there’s no doubt it’s a mandatory cap—as opposed to the purely voluntary measures that President Bush has proposed.

Either McCain doesn’t understand this, or he’s being deliberately disingenuous, afraid that business conservatives will be turned off by the word “mandatory”, with its echoes of big-government, top-down regulation. (Indeed, the fact that he seems to have made a point of denying that he favors mandatory caps several times before suggests the latter explanation.) But whatever the case, by saying he wouldn’t impose a mandatory cap, he’s flatly misstating the facts—something you’d think the press would call him on.

Guess not. Four days later, plenty of environmental news sites and blogs—including CJR’s Todd Gitlin—had drawn attention to the incident, but the only mentions of it that we could find in the mainstream media were a blog post at Politico and this online chat with Washington Post political reporter Michael Shear—and even here it took a reader to bring it up. (Shear replied that he suspects it was a “misstatement” by McCain, and that the paper is “still trying to get clarification.”) Other than that, nothing.

So: A presidential candidate flatly misstates the central premise of one of his signature policy initiatives, and the press ignores it. But, hey, at least we know all about how Michelle Obama did on “The View.”

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.