Sep 16 2008

In tanker dispute, it's country, not campaign

Mobile Press Register

IT'S ONE thing for a U.S. senator to support the home team. But a presidential candidate needs to put the country first — Sen. Barack Obama's cheap-shot question of "which country" his rival Sen. John McCain was putting first notwithstanding.

Sen. Obama appears to be putting a union that endorsed him first.

In his now infamous remarks last Friday to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Democratic candidate for president didn't actually come out and say that Boeing should get the Air Force aerial refueling tanker contract. But he did strongly imply it, saying that the Pentagon was right to cancel the competition between Boeing and the Northrop Grumman-EADS partnership that intended to base its tanker assembly in Mobile.

He also attacked his Republican rival for hiring two Washington lobbyists "who worked against Boeing," and claimed that Sen. McCain supports economic policies that cause Americans to lose jobs when companies ship those jobs overseas.

Since Sen. Obama still represents Illinois, where Boeing has its world headquarters in Chicago, the Press-Register editorial board was not holding its collective breath waiting for him to endorse the Northrop-EADS proposal. Still, it should be noted that Sen. Obama didn't actually put Boeing first, either.

The Machinists union is on strike against Boeing. Boeing's corporate best interests are certainly not served by the strike, nor are the interests of other Americans who work for Boeing but didn't go on strike. But the Machinists union endorsed Sen. Obama for president, and there are 720,000 Machinists.

So for the moment, Sen. Obama is putting his election first, not the country or his home state or even Boeing. Whoever is elected president and inherits the tanker controversy will need to ensure a strong national defense. In the case of the tanker, the president will need to ensure that the Pentagon chooses the most capable plane, which we believe is the one proposed by Northrop-EADS.

Speaking of representing the best interests of one's constituents, Alabama's congressional delegation does not deserve a shred of blame for Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to delay the contract — worth up to $40 billion — until the next president takes office.

Alabama's Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby and U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner of Mobile did not throw temper tantrums, try to mislead their colleagues, or lower themselves to the rhetorical depths of their colleagues from Washington state and Kansas who did Boeing's political dirty work in Congress. But that doesn't mean they didn't do enough lobbying for Northrop-EADS and Mobile.

The competition has been called off, but it isn't over. Northrop-EADS made the best case for winning the contract, and the Alabama congressional delegation, as well as state and local officials, had the facts on their side. Unfortunately, entrenched pro-Boeing political powers overrode the facts, at least for now. But the Alabama contingent will keep on slugging for as long as it takes.