John McCain was “feeling it” during his blogger phone conference today. And why not? The domestic political climate with respect to Iraq seems to have improved, and he’s doing better in virtually every poll.
McCain began by calling on the Democrats to repudiate the aspersions cast by Moveon.org on the patriotism and integrity of General Petraeus. McCain reminded us that he repudiated what he considered attacks on the patriotism of Max Cleland and John Kerry. Later in the call, he declined an invitation to come down hard on the Democrats’ conduct during the hearings this week. McCain said he wants to maintain a respectful relationship with the war critics in Congress, but added that they seem to have made up their minds.
I asked McCain whether, in light of Gen. Petraeus’s concession that parts of Baghdad remain under the control of Shia militias and dominated by fear, he thought the recommended troop reduction was a pure military judgment, or at least in part the product of political calculation and concerns about manpower. McCain said Petraeus has committed to him that if he needs more troops he will ask for them. Thus, he hopes, and based on his trust of Petraeus believes, that the troop reduction recommendation is entirely “a considered military judgment.” McCain added that there are reports (which he can neither confirm nor deny) of opposition to the surge at the Pentagon, but that (again) he hopes and trusts that this is not influencing Petraeus’s recommendation.
Matt Lewis asked about the response of other Republican candidates, in particular Mitt Romney, to the surge. McCain said he doesn’t pay much attention to what’s coming from the other campaigns, and engaged Romney on the issue only because of his comment during the debate that the surge was “apparently” working. Lewis followed up by asking whether it’s the responsibility of Republican candidates to help create confidence in the surge. McCain said he’d like to see other candidates be more supportive.
For what it’s worth, my view is that candidates should not become cheerleaders even for very important policies they’d like to see work. Thus, to the extent that Romney was less certain about the surge’s success than McCain (and there was room for disagreement as to level of certainty prior to Petraeus’s testimony, and even now) there was nothing improper about Romney’s more qualified statement.
Betsy Newmark, passing along a question from one of her high school students, asked what McCain would do to rally support for U.S. involvement in Iraq if he becomes president. McCain said the next six months are the key. By January 2009 we’ll either have shown enough success to sustain the effort or we’ll have basically been forced out.
Rob Bluey asked what President Bush should say to rally support now. McCain answered that Bush should say what Petraeus said and provide lots of detail. More generally, Bush should be on television every week (even if only CSPAN carries it) explaining what’s going right and what’s going wrong. Bluey also asked whether the administration is doing enough to highlight Iranian involvement in Iraq. McCain said that he would highlight it more and would also consider actions to counteract what Iran is doing. McCain made it clear, however, that he is “proud” of President Bush’s efforts to rally support for the surge.
In response to a question from Phil Klein about what’s likely to happen in Congress now that Petraeus and Crocker have testified, McCain noted that the authorization of the military budget is supposed to occur by October 1 but this is in jeopardy because the Dems can try to insert controversial provisions pertaining to Iraq. He also said that, while Harry Reid knows he can’t get 60 votes for withdrawal, he’s negotiating with certain Republicans like John Warner and Lamar Alexander to get a less straightforward resolution that will promote the same goal. McCain vowed to remain in Washington to fight these efforts notwithstanding the need to campaign and raise funds.
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