Who Cares?

The McCain camp is jumping up and down about the fact that over the weekend, Barack Obama essentially came over to John McCain’s view on Iraq. This was the exchange Obama had with Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe:

Wolffe: You’ve been talking about those limited missions for a long time. Having gone there and talked to both diplomatic and military folks, do you have a clearer idea of how big a force you’d need to leave behind to fulfill all those functions?

Obama: I do think that’s entirely conditions-based. It’s hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now, or a year from now, or a year and a half from now.

Obama has come a long way, obviously, from the borderline Code Pinker who fired up the Democratic Party’s left wing. At this point, with McCain talking about “timeframes” and Obama making no firm commitments and deferring to “conditions,” the difference between the candidates’ positions has largely disappeared.

The candidates will continue to argue, of course, about their respective histories: McCain will point out that Obama was wrong about the surge, which Obama is silly to continue denying, while Obama will counter that McCain was wrong to support the war in the first place.

My sense is that by November, Iraq won’t be much of an issue. Voters care about the future, not the past, they won’t see much difference between the candidates’ positions going forward. The arguments about the past will pretty much cancel each other out.

I think there is an analogy to the flap over Obama’s willingness to meet with hostile foreign leaders “without preconditions.” While I understand the point of McCain’s criticism, I doubt whether many voters attach the significance to “preconditions” that diplomats may.

What will emerge from all of this, I think, is that voters will see Obama as “soft” on foreign policy: someone who will be very reluctant to use military force under any circumstances, who will have great faith in diplomacy, who will try hard to gain the approval of foreign countries, and won’t be mean to our enemies. McCain is correspondingly “hard.”

The history of “soft” Presidential candidates is not a happy one. In the modern era, Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis all suffered from the perception of softness. The conventional wisdom in recent years is that Democratic Presidential candidates must avoid an image of weakness in foreign policy like the plague. Obama has consciously, I think, defied that view, likely in the belief that after eight years of a “hard” Presidency, voters are ready to try the alternative.

What I am trying to suggest here is that the McCain campaign will lose the battles they are now fighting over the details of Obama’s foreign policy views, but will nevertheless win the foreign policy war.

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