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August 25, 2006
McCain's Less Than Straight Talk Express (Updated)

Updated -- see below.

John McCain has used the nickname "Straight Talk Express" for his campaigns for years, but it may now be a violation of truth-in-advertising regulations, if they applied to poltical statements. McCain has hired Democratic political operatives (see update, not hired) after denying any interest in them to at least one reporter who specifically asked about it:

Senator McCain's latest additions to his 2008 presidential campaign team — a veteran of Democrat Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and a former Bush administration State Department official — are setting Washington to speculating about the ideological direction Mr. McCain's run for the White House might take.

The new pledges of support for the Arizona Republican came from an Internet guru best known for Governor Dean's upstart presidential campaign in 2004, Nicholas Mele, and from a former State Department official and veteran trade negotiator, Robert Zoellick. ...

"I have long admired Sen. McCain's work on campaign finance reform and his independent streak," Mr. Mele, who is known as Nicco, wrote yesterday on his blog. "This is a personal decision for me based on my own first-hand experience. I like Sen. McCain—I think he should be president!"

Word of Mr. Mele's move touched off considerable debate in the blogosphere, particularly because of his prior ties to Dr. Dean, who was a darling of the Democratic Party's left wing in the last race and who is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

It touched off more than just debate in the blogosphere. Jim Geraghty, the National Review reporter who blogs at his eponymous NRO site, angrily denounced McCain's staff for having lied to him -- twice:

So not long ago, I had heard that Nicco Mele, former webmaster for the Dean campaign, had signed on with John McCain. So I called up John McCain’s PAC, Straight Talk America.

You’ll recall that I had asked Craig Goldman, the executive director of STA, a while back if Patrick Hynes was working for McCain. The answer was, “Never heard of him.” Several days later, Hynes put up a press release announcing his firm had signed on with Straight Talk America. I called up Goldman, asked what was going on, and he said that he had heard of Hynes’ firm, but didn’t recognize Hynes’ name. When he had learned of his erroneous statement, he said he had been unable to find my number or a way to contact me.

Many folks read this sequence of events in a less charitable manner – contending Goldman lied, the press release from Hynes was a hastily-put-together and direct result of my inquiry, and both had hoped I would forget about this story. But I gave Goldman the benefit of the doubt; we all make mistakes, and my original inquiry asked if Goldman had heard of Hynes’ old firm, Marsh Copsey.

So back on July 31, I called up Goldman again and asked about Mele (and, at the same time, I asked about a poster on RedState with connections to STA, John Balbach.) He responded, via e-mail (as well as phone) “Nicco Mele: Has no official role with the PAC and is not on our payroll. He is one of the many people we talk to from time to time asking for advice or opinions on ideas.”

I asked again, seeking to clarify further, “From your description, I assume it’s safe to say that Mele has not been compensated for any of his advice or opinions on ideas. (Other than, say, a sandwich.) If I'm wrong, please correct me.”

Goldman responded, “Mele (Like the mutiple of others who call and offer free advice) has not been compensated for any of his advice or opinions on ideas (other than say a sandwich).”

Geraghty notes that the announcement of Mele's hiring referred to the months in which McCain's staff has courted the former Howard Dean advisor. Instead of giving Jim a "no comment", McCain's staff flat-out lied to him, and for the second time on matters of personnel. Jim notes that he understands that political recruitment has strong elements of secrecy, but that does not give license for politicians and their staff to lie to people about it.

Mele causes Republican heartburn for other reasons as well. Mele's company provides consulting services to Air America and the trial lawyer's lobbying organization. This isn't exactly the heart of the GOP, and one has to wonder why McCain feels it so necessary to engage the far Left. Of course, for readers of CQ, McCain's flirtations with the far-Left fringe comes as no shock; we documented McCain's connections to George Soros and to hard-liberal organizations through the Reform Institute last year. One also has to wonder why the McCain staff wants to get consulting services from a man whose associations have been with such spectacular disasters such as Air America and the Howard Dean presidential campaign. So much for competence in government.

McCain's aide John Weaver attempted to distance his candidate from Mele's political connections. He claimed that Mele had bought into McCain's policies, not the other way around. Weaver apparently expects us to trust the McCain campaign on this issue, because they've been so honest up to now in their hirings and associations.

The Straight Talk Express has gotten derailed somewhere around Machiavelli Street.

UPDATE: Patrick Hynes and I spoke earlier today about this story and its accuracy. Patrick posted the following at Ankle-Biting Pundits:

Because of my own history with Jim Geraghty at TKS–whom, by the way, I still like very much–I have purposely avoided writing about the Nicco Mele issue. But then I thought, what the Hell!? Those who want to trash me are going to trash me no matter what.

I understand Jim feels that he has not been treated fairly by Straight Talk America. But based on the quotes Jim provides in his blog post, I can’t see where Craig Goldman, the PAC’s Executive Director said anything to Jim that was inaccurate. ...

Nicco says he has no official, compensated role with Straight Talk America. Straight Talk America says Nicco has no official, compensated role. Campaign finance reports prove Nicco has no official, compensated role with Straight Talk America.

There's more to this statement, especially a polite point-by-point answer to Jim Geraghty, so be sure to read it. Patrick got in touch with me after reading this post and wanted to stress that Mele has no paid role with the campaign. Patrick insists that Mele's status is only that of a public supporter and casual advisor.

This doesn't make much sense to me, and I told Patrick so. Mele's client list represents the hard-line progressive cast of the Democratic Party -- Air America, trial lawyers, and so on, none of whom were happy to hear about Mele's latest political posture. Patrick insists, though, that the months of contacts between Straight Talk America and Mele were for free advice and support.

Patrick is a good guy, and he and I will talk more this weekend. I'm hoping to get a full interview with him so that CQ readers can get all sides of the McCain campaign.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 25, 2006 6:11 PM

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