‘Let the student decide’

‘LET THE STUDENT DECIDE’….Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hopes to become the oldest person ever elected president, but he’s still making an effort to reach out to younger voters. Consider what Mr. Straight Talk told an MTV audience recently.

“Let the student decide.” With those well-chosen words John McCain summed up his view on the teaching of “intelligent design” along with evolution in public schools.

In related news, McCain said he’d like to see students decide whether to believe the earth is flat, the South won the Civil War, the value of pi is exactly 3, and one can contract the AIDS virus through tears and sweat.

OK, so he didn’t actually endorse these other positions, but by saying that students should decide whether to learn pseudoscience alongside modern biology, McCain appears willing to make science classes popularity contests. One wants to believe McCain knows better and he’s just saying these nonsensical things to bolster his presidential ambitions, but that makes him even less appealing.

Matt Yglesias recently said that McCain is “more honest than the conventional Republican, but basically has the same worldview.” I agree, but it remains to be seen just how far McCain is willing to stray in order to appeal to presidential primary voters.

Early indications suggest the answer is, “Pretty far.”

In February 2000, for example, then-presidential candidate McCain traveled to Virginia Beach, home of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, in advance of Virginia’s GOP primary. Taking what he said was a principled stand, McCain blasted the religious right.

“We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson,” McCain said, adding, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”

That was then. Just last month, McCain’s office confirmed that the senator has been chatting with Falwell. Given the context of McCain’s presidential ambitions, it’s probably safe to assume the senator didn’t give Falwell a private audience just so he could remind the TV preacher that he’s an “agent of intolerance.”

McCain isn’t in a comfortable position. He angers the right by fighting Bush on torture, but then angers everyone else by embracing a rigid state ban on gay marriage and intelligent design. He makes one side happy with a vote on repealing the estate tax, but disappoints the exact same people with the Gang of 14 compromise. He backs Bush on privatizing Social Security and the war, but lets Bush down on stem-cell research and campaign-finance reform.

My friend Ari Berman recently explained that McCain has “an uncomfortable predicament for a pragmatic problem solver.” Somehow, I doubt his “let the student decide” pronouncement will make things any easier.