Reporters vs. McCain, Up Close

Earlier today I participated in a conference call with Senator Jon Kyl and Randy Scheunemann of the McCain campaign. The purpose of the call was to respond to the Obama campaign’s attacks on statements McCain made yesterday:

I can tell you that it [the Surge] is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it’s succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet, and it’s long and it’s hard and it’s tough and there will be setbacks….

I’ve been on a lot of similar calls in the past, generally with a “blogger” group. This time, most of the journalists on the call were from the conventional media–the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, NBC News, and others. Senator Kyl and Scheunemann made what struck me as a reasonable pitch: McCain’s error was a slight one, in that troops are being drawn down and they are projected to reach pre-surge levels in July; they are not yet, however, “drawn down to pre-surge levels.”

Whether this is a significant error or a case of “nit-picking” over verb tenses as McCain’s spokesmen characterized it is, I suppose, a judgment call. But on the most liberal judgment, McCain’s error can’t be one millionth as significant as this blindingly obvious fact: McCain supported the surge, predicting that it would reduce violence, while Obama opposed the surge, predicting that it would cause violence to increase. McCain was right. Understandably, Obama wants to focus on what McCain’s campaign calls nit-picking in order to distract voters from the fact that he was indisputably wrong on the most important foreign policy issue that has arisen during his brief Senate tenure.

What was striking about the call was how eager the conventional reporters were to lend the Obama campaign a hand. Virtually every question they asked during the press conference dripped with hostility toward McCain. The tone can’t fully be conveyed by a cold transcript, but I think you’ll get the picture. Here are some of the questions the reporters asked, verbatim:

QUESTION: Randy, I’m a little confused here, because if the question is a change of — a question over the tense of the statement, why is he not wrong?

QUESTION: Back to this point about pre-surge level, I mean, isn’t this thing — I know you’re casting this as sort of this nitpicking, as Senator Kyl said, I believe. But isn’t this significant, because Senator McCain’s whole argument here is that he knows — like you say, he knows the facts on the ground, he knows every detail of this, he’s been to Iraq five times since Senator Obama last went?

You guys were counting the specific days since Obama’s last trip. I mean, this isn’t some small distinction, it seems to me.

QUESTION: Yes, first on the question of verb tenses, and it seems to be more important than you might suggest. If Bush had said, “The mission will be accomplished,” and had not said, “Mission accomplished,” those are two completely different things with completely different meanings.

Secondly, on McCain’s points about everything being quiet in Mosul, the Obama campaign is saying that there were two suicide bombings there yesterday or in the vicinity. Do you regard that as all quiet in Mosul?

QUESTION: No, but it’s not just a matter of simply verb tenses. I mean, if you say something “will be accomplished,” things can change in Iraq, as we have seen. Just because a decision is made, decisions have been made all along for the past five years that have had to be postponed, revised.

We don’t know what is going to happen between now and when the troop numbers are drawn down to the level that has been promised. A lot can happen. Verb tenses can be quite important. It’s not just a matter for nitpicking things.

QUESTION: But the way you’re trying to spin it, something “will” happen and something “has” happened are two completely different things. And that is not nitpicking to point that out.

QUESTION: Hey, sorry about the background noise here and sorry to return to verb tenses. But when he said that it is quiet in Mosul, just to follow up Michael, was that also a verb tense issue? Or is that just something that changed yesterday?

It’s no secret that the press is running interference for Obama, but it was interesting to see it in action. You can read the AP’s story on the controversy, including today’s phone call, here. The Washington Post’s story, which purports to fact-check McCain and gives him three “Pinocchios,” is here.

This was Obama’s parting shot:

“Today, Sen. McCain refused to correct his mistake,” Obama said in remarks prepared for a rally Friday in Great Falls, Mont. “Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake.”

Really? And when has Obama admitted that he was mistaken when he said that the surge would fail and would cause an increase in violence in Iraq? Do you suppose these same reporters will ask that question when they are next on a conference call with Obama’s campaign? No, I don’t think so either.

Jennifer Rubin was also on the call and comments here.

PAUL adds: I couldn’t get free for the call, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment. But I don’t get why there was a call or a “verb tense” defense. Shouldn’t McCain have simply corrected his misstatement and moved on?

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