Yesterday, after learning that Howard Dean had called John McCain a “blatant opportunist” for producing an ad that alluded to his record of military service and heroism, I suggested that McCain’s stature (and the popularity that goes with it) had unnerved Dean. It seems to me that the Democrats are also unnereved by another phenomenon — the success to date of the surge in Iraq.
After the 2006 election, many Democrats probably expected to coast to victory in 2008 on the unpopularity of the Iraq war. But the success of the surge, coupled with the nomination of the man who kept pushing for it, has upset this expectation. The debate over whether we should continue fighting in Iraq in 2009 is no longer one the Democrats are sure they can win.
When John McCain said he would not be bothered if the U.S. maintains a military presence in Iraq 100 years from now as long as no Americans are being killed or wounded, opportunists (to borrow a phrase) like Dean and Obama saw a chance to misrepresent McCain’s comments so as to change the subject. Instead of focusing on the real issue of whether we should be fighting in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, Democrats could invoke a phony one — whether it would be fine to be fighting there in 2109. Hence, the mantra from Obama, Dean, and others that (in one of Obama’s formulations) McCain “is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq”).
Fortunately, this tactic may well prove more problematic for Obama (if he continues with it) than for McCain. As Charles Krauthammer pointed out yesterday, the suggestion that McCain is prepared to fight in Iraq for 100 years is deeply dishonest. As important from a political perspective, it is easily shown to be dishonest. Unlike many bogus “gotcha” moments, the refutation of this one is contained in the moment itself. After mentioning the possibility of being in Iraq 100 years from now, McCain added: “We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.”
Moreover, the Obama-Dean line of attack on McCain has already been pronounced dishonest by an independent watchdog organization. Thus, Krauthammer informs us, the Annenberg Political Fact Check, a nonprofit and nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, has stated: “It’s a rank falsehood for the DNC to accuse McCain of wanting to wage ‘endless war’ [Howard Dean's phrase, but no different in substance from what Krauthammer shows to be Obama's rendition] based on his support for a presence in Iraq something like the U.S. role in South Korea.”
If Obama continues down this path, it should be quite easy for the McCain campaign to dispatch whatever still remains of Obama’s claim to be a different kind of politician. The voters on whom this election depends probably won’t take kindly to seeing a popular candidate attacked based on “a rank falsehood,” especially by someone as sanctimonious as Obama is becoming.
Of course, if events in Iraq take a turn for the worse, the Dems may once again hold the winning cards, for electoral purposes, in the debate over Iraq. But that won’t be because of anything McCain said about staying for 100 years.
JOHN adds: I take it as a given that Obama is a very bright guy, but the quality of the arguments he makes on the stump is strikingly poor. He consistently reaches for the cheap sound bite, rarely for the substantive point. Another line he uses to attack McCain is that a couple of years ago he was against withdrawing from Iraq because things were going poorly, and now he is against withdrawing because things are going well. I guess this line gets applause from Democratic audiences who think it shows some kind of inconsistency on McCain’s part. Actually, of course, McCain’s position is simple and coherent: we shouldn’t fail in our mission by pulling out prematurely. That principle applied when things weren’t going well, and it also applies today when we appear on the road to success, but conditions would likely deteriorate if our troops disappear too soon.
When a smart politician consistently makes dumb arguments and focuses on sound bites to the exclusion of substance on the campaign trail, I interpret it as a sign of contempt for the voters. It will be interesting to see whether this impression deepens as the campaign goes on.
PAUL adds: Maybe the quality of Obama’s arguments will improve when the quality of his audience improves, i.e. when his audience doesn’t just include Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.
As for consistency, the only constant in Obama’s views about Iraq is opportunism. Initially, as he likes to remind Democrats, he opposed the war. But he admitted in one of his books that, after the invasion succeeded so dramatically, he “began to suspect that I might have been wrong.” By early 2004, as he geared up for his Senate run, Obama was telling the Chicago Tribune, “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.” Later that year, in the heat of the campaign, he said that although Bush had “bungled the war” getting out “would make things worse.” That’s been McCain’s position throughout. At the end of 2004, he told Charlie Rose, “Once we go in, then we’re committed. . . .We’ve got to do everything we can to stablilze the country to make it succeessful because we’ll have too much at stake in the Middle East.”
A year later, his position had evolved again. Now, he wanted to “reduce our footprint,” but “not fully withdraw.” Withdrawal was not the way to go because “we have a role to play in stabilizing the country as Iraqis are getting their act together.” But another year later, in the fall of 2006 as he contemplated asking Democratic voters for support in a run for the presidency, stabilizing Iraq was no longer a priority. Instead, Obama was calling for “phased withdrawal,” which should begin as quickly as possible. The administration, however, decided on a troop surge. Obama responded that such a surge would not “make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that’s taking place there.” Not long after that, as he tried to position himself to the left of Hillary Clinton, Obama was touting his plan to “bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.”
There’s plenty more, and it is all compiled in a piece by Peter Wehner in the April issue of Commentary. The bottom line is that Obama has flip-flopped on Iraq more often than John Kerry, and it takes more than a little audacity for Obama to claim that John McCain has been inconsistent on the subject.
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