Earlier today, Kate reported on some confused remarks from John McCain on his plan for a carbon cap. Via Politico, the McCain campaign has now clarified the remarks. Here’s the original exchange:

QUESTION: The European Union has set mandatory targets on renewable energy. Is that something you would consider in a McCain administration? […]

MCCAIN: Sure. I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met.

Here’s what the campaign said:

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"John McCain was correctly reflecting his position, he just inadvertently said the word ‘cap’ instead of ‘target,’" said spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Today’s comment was a response to a question about mandatory "targets" for renewable energy — McCain believes that a cap-and-trade system provides enough market incentive for investment in renewables. If that’s the case (and many environmentalists would disagree), then mandatory targets wouldn’t be necessary.

McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin also defended McCain’s response to Greenwire. Here’s what McCain said then:

It’s not quote mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK, because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That’s the way I call it.

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Here’s what Holtz-Eakin said:

… McCain’s Greenwire response sounded confusing because he thought the interviewer was implying that there were mandatory caps on emissions for individuals and companies — not on the system as a whole.

Still no explanation from the campaign for McCain’s remarks in January’s GOP debate in Florida. Here’s that exchange:

Tim Russert: Senator McCain, you are in favor of mandatory caps.

McCain: No, I’m in favor of cap-and-trade. And Joe Lieberman and I, one of my favorite Democrats and I, have proposed that — and we did the same thing with acid rain.

And all we are saying is, “Look, if you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, you earn a credit. If somebody else is going to increase theirs, you can sell it to them.” And, meanwhile, we have a gradual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

To be fair, these examples don’t establish that McCain flatly doesn’t understand there’s a mandatory cap in his cap-and-trade plan. A more likely explanation is that this is domestic policy and McCain simply doesn’t have his heart in it. He strikes the right pose, but it’s an inch deep — he’s not committed enough to it to overcome his instinctive conservative aversion to the word “mandatory.”

He supports a "market-based program" to "beat climate change" in the abstract, but he also wants gas tax holidays, domestic drilling incentives, megapork for nuclear and coal, no boosts in sector-specific efficiency or fuel economy standards, limited public investment, and enormous tax cuts. When the abstraction bumps into the conservative interest group, the abstraction gives way.