Benefit, Blame, Causation and Other Irrelevancies
The underlying theory has its own latin tag--Cui Bono. When something goes wrong, see who benefits by it and blame him. As a rule of thumb, a first place to look, it makes some sense. But it makes no logical sense here, since McCain is not arguing—could not plausibly argue—that Obama caused the crisis in order to benefit by it. Yet, however illogical, it works as rhetoric. Bad things are happening, Obama is benefitting by them, Obama must be a bad person.
An older and bigger example of the same error was the attack on "malefactors of great wealth," war profiteers, after WWI. There was no real evidence linking firms that manufactured munitions to the war happening. But terrible things had happened, people wanted someone to blame, and those—actual or imaginary—who had benefitted by those terrible things were the obvious targets.
The illogic in both of these cases is in some ways similar to one of the oddities in arguments about global warming. Both sides of that debate seem to take it for granted that if the cause of global warming is human activity, that's an argument for our doing something about it, while if it is something else, such as changes in the behavior of the sun, that is an argument against.
There is a crumb of logic to the argument. If global warming is caused by human activities, then by stopping those activities we could presumably stop it. The behavior of the sun is not something we have any control over.
But it is only a crumb. To begin with, "human" is a species, not a person. "We" don't make decisions. Whether or not humans are causing global warming, my contribution to it, which is what I control, is close to zero. I have little more control over other people living on the other side of the globe than I do over the sun. So even if is true that humans are causing the problem, it does not follow that there is a human solution to it in any useful sense.
Seen from the other side, even if humans are not responsible, even if the cause is the sun, if global warming is a bad thing it might be worth doing something to stop it. Humans are not responsible for the existence of polio, but that is no argument against developing polio vaccines. Various suggestions have been made for things humans could do that would reduce global tempratures. Whether they are worth doing does not depend on whether whatever increase is happening is our fault.
Which gets us, I think, to the emotional core of the argument. It isn't that whether we caused it determines whether we can cure it. It is that if we caused it then it is our fault, and if it is our fault we should cure it. "Clean up your own mess."
That makes no sense that I can see in such a context, since it is extending to the human species an argument applicable only to individual humans. Yet it is emotionally powerful, which is why one side of the argument wants to argue that global warming is caused by humans, the other that it is not.
[Interested readers may want to look at some of my past posts for a more detailed discussion of the global warming controversy.]
[A commenter points out that I was mistaken in associating the term "malefactors of great wealth" with the post WWI attempt to assign blame for the war. The term was used by Teddy Roosevelt at least as early as 1907.]