As Josh Marshall explains, it doesn't matter how you choose to interpret it, this is a major gaffe:
Okay, a moment to take stock on the embarrassing McCain gaffe. As noted earlier, despite the fact that McCain repeatedly suggests that Spain is a country in Latin America, McCain's foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann, insists that McCain wasn't confused, knew exactly who Zapatero was and meant every word of what he said. So with the McCain campaign sticking to its guns, let's review the possibilities of what happened here.
Option #1: McCain is so addled he not only doesn't know who Zapatero is but doesn't even know where Spain is located.
Option #2: McCain was not confused but actually meant his very belligerent comments about Spain and the Zapatero government (Scheunemann's line).
Option #3: Through some mixture of confusion and inability to understand the interviewer's accent, McCain was confused about who he was talking about and decided to wing it, assuming that the person he was being asked about was some other left-wing strong man from Latin America and answering with the standard boilerplate about standing up to America's enemies.
So let's run through the options. I do think McCain's age and sharpness are real issues and legitimate campaign issues. But while I think it's possible that McCain's doesn't remember who 'Zapatero' is, I obviously don't believe that in a calm moment he wouldn't be able to locate Spain on a map. So let's rule out option one is a possible but unlikely option.
So what about option #2? It's true that the neocons around McCain really do not like Zapatero. There are several nonsensical reasons but it at least started with his position against the Iraq War -- and the fact that he shortcircuited right wing efforts to exploit the ghastly Madrid train bombings. So it is true that they don't like him. But this option isn't credible either for two and possible three reasons. First, in the exchange, McCain repeatedly refers to Spain as a country in Latin America. So if Randy really wants to stick to this explanation, he needs to explain why McCain thinks Spain is a country in Latin America, which I assume he doesn't want to do. You just can't have it both ways. Either he misunderstood at some level what he was being asked or he has a presidential disqualifying level of ignorance about geography. The second reason is that back in April McCain explicitly said that he wanted to move past earlier disagreements with Spain and said specifically that he wanted to Zapatero to visit him at the White House if he is elected president. So even if we set aside the geographical confusion, McCain's camp would need to explain why he's changed his policy 180 degrees since April. A possible third explanation is that McCain would not take such a confrontational stance toward a NATO ally. But let's be honest, I wouldn't put it past him. Still, one and two are dispositive.
So we're on to option #3. Some version of option #3 is the only credible answer. Whether it was because of ignorance, confusion or inability to understand what the interviewer was saying, McCain clearly didn't understand what he was being asked. And rather than stop and say, I didn't understand your question, could you restate it?, (Or, who are you referring to?) he decided to wing it and assumed he was being asked a question about another Latin American strong man bad guy. This is simply the only credible explanation that takes account of all the evidence. I think it's a generous read to conclude that the only issue was that McCain couldn't understand the interviewer's accent. But it's definitely possible. Even that, though, puts McCain in a pretty bad light.
Equally bad, Randy Scheunemann would rather further inflame Spanish-American relations by ridiculously insisting that McCain knew exactly what he saying than admit the obvious -- that he didn't understand the question. It wouldn't be that surprising. But given McCain has premised his whole campaign on foreign policy experience they've clearly decided it would simply be too damaging to admit he was either a) confused, b) ignorant or c) reckless enough to spout off aggressive remarks when he didn't even know who he was being asked about.
I too think #3 is the most likely explanation. Even I don't think McCain is unaware that Spain is a European country, and I'm pretty sure he knows that Zapatero is the Spanish PM (the interviewer was wrong too, there's no such thing as a "Spanish President"; Spain is a constitutional monarchy), at least in more lucid moments.
Still, it doesn't look good for a presidential candidate to so easily get confused, and it looks even worse for his chief foreign policy advisor to make things even worse by claiming that the candidate meant to give such a needlessly belligerent answer in reference to a longtime NATO ally.
More fun foreign policy gaffes:
Let's also not lose sight of the broader pattern. McCain thinks the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." He thinks Iraq and Pakistan share a border. He believes Czechoslovakia is still a country. He's been confused about the difference between Sudan and Somalia. He's been confused about whether he wants more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, more NATO troops in Afghanistan, or both. He's been confused about how many U.S. troops are in Iraq. He's been confused about whether the U.S. can maintain a long-term presence in Iraq. He's been confused about Iran's relationship with al Qaeda. He's been confused about the difference between Sunni and Shi'ia. McCain, following a recent trip to Germany, even referred to "President Putin of Germany." All of this incoherence on his signature issue.Actually, it's more accurate to say that Americans don't really care about "foreign policy", by and large (McCain's gaffes are all on points that many American voters would struggle with as well); they care about "national security". And how do they judge who's the best at "national security"? Usually by how eager they are to start wars and bomb people. This is why Bush was able to get such consistently high ratings on the "national security" issue, even though 9/11 happened on his watch, even though he started a disastrous war in Iraq and left the one in Afghanistan to fester, and even though the US's diplomatic standing in the world hit rock bottom during his presidency.
Even though an Obama administration would undoubtably have far better relations with the rest of the world, would be less likely to start misguided wars, and probably would even fight terrorists more competently, most Americans inexplicably continue to trust the Republicans more on this issue.
Anyway, not the very best week for McCain. Joe Klein thinks he's getting desperate:
First, the economic fundamentals are sound. Then we're in a major crisis.
He talks about the excessive compensation that CEOs receive, but continues to
have Carly Fiorina ($100 million for her failed stewardship of Hewlett Packard)
as an economic spokesperson. He wants to have a vigorous new regulatory regime
patrolling Wall Street--even though he has always opposed such a regime and his
pal Phi Gramm was the guy in charge of dynamiting the regulations--and yet he is
running this ad, warning against excessive federal power.
This is called flailing.
Funniest pair of headlines on TPM ever:
McCain: I Would Fire SEC Chairman
ABC: President Can't "Fire" SEC Chair
And what post would be complete without some more ridicule of Sarah Palin?
Sarah Palin likes to tell voters around the country about how she “put the government checkbook online” in Alaska. On Thursday, Palin suggested she would take that same proposal to Washington.
“We’re going to do a few new things also,” she said at a rally in Cedar Rapids. “For instance, as Alaska’s governor, I put the government’s checkbook online so that people can see where their money’s going. We’ll bring that kind of transparency, that responsibility, and accountability back. We’re going to bring that back to D.C.”
There’s just one problem with proposing to put the federal checkbook online – somebody’s already done it. His name is Barack Obama.
What can you say, really?