While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton get all the MSM attention, GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain continues his straight talk tour under the radar, holding fundraisers, making “town hall” appearances, giving speeches, etc. The Democrats can’t afford to let McCain go unchallenged altogether while their two candidates are roughing each other up. But at this point, attempts by Obama, Clinton, the DNC, and the Democrat grassroots to criticize McCain are falling seriously short.
McCain presents a challenge to Democrats inasmuch as he’s the only pro-life Republican in recent memory to receive favorable treatment from the MSM. His reputation as a “maverick” who has frequently thumbed his nose at core GOP constituencies enhances his appeal among centrist voters – the latest national polls show that McCain remains competitive with Obama, particularly among independents.
Iraq seems like the strongest issue on which to criticize Sen. McCain, who has been reliably hawkish on the war even when American casualty rates were at their peak. The Democrats could reasonably argue that McCain is far outside the mainstream of American opinion in his open-ended commitment to Iraq, and yet they seem clueless in their attempts to attack McCain on the issue. Witness their disingenuous exploitation of McCain’s “100 years in Iraq” remark. At a town hall meeting in January, McCain responded to question about the length of Iraq’s occupation:
Questioner: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years…
McCain: Maybe a hundred. Make it one hundred. We’ve been in South Korea, we’ve been in Japan for sixty years. We’ve been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.
McCain could have included Bosnia and Kuwait, and his point would have been the same – he’s in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq under ceasefire conditions. This very well may be a foolhardy position, inasmuch as it assumes that a ceasefire in Iraq is likely (despite the Mahdi Army’s recent defeats). But Democrats didn’t criticize McCain’s optimism – instead, they tried to portray McCain as a warmonger content to throw away the lives of U.S. soldiers. Barack Obama has said “[McCain] says that he is willing to send our troops into another hundred years of war in Iraq.”
Obama’s distortion of McCain’s position was so transparent that even the Columbia Journalism Review and the Washington Post scolded Obama (as well as Clinton) for it. That was during the first week of April. Fast forward to the last week of April, when the DNC released a new television ad featuring footage of McCain making his “100 years” remark. Not surprisingly, the ad doesn’t include McCain’s qualifier that it would be “fine with [him] as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed.” The ad does happen to feature footage of a U.S. soldier who is apparently wounded/killed by an IED as it detonates. The Democrats aren’t going to have much credibility accusing (as they unfailingly do) the Republicans of dirty politics if they can’t even be honest about McCain’s position.
In fact, Obama’s position is that some U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for the purpose of denying Al Qaeda a base of operations – a position that agrees with McCain’s “100 years” statement on a practical level.
The DNC got closer to the mark last week, with the five-year anniversary of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on May 1. McCain now says that he thought the garish “Mission Accomplished” banner was a bad idea, and that Bush didn’t adequately prepare the American public for what lay ahead in Iraq. The DNC pointed out a Fox News interview that McCain gave in June 2003, in which he spoke approvingly and somewhat smugly of the very “Mission Accomplished” banner he now derides.
But closer to the mark isn’t a hit – in that same Fox News interview, McCain vaguely acknowledged that post-Saddam Iraq would represent a “long, difficult process” for the U.S. and favored Senate hearings to assess the situation. It’s difficult to play “gotcha” with McCain’s evolving views on Iraq, because all Americans have had evolving views as the conflict has unfolded over the past five years. Republicans could just as easily uncover statements by Obama or Clinton that contradict their current positions, and distort them as necessary. And given that no one can know what the situation on the ground in Iraq will be in last week of October – when it will matter most as far as late-deciding voters go – Democrats can’t afford to criticize McCain in a way that could backfire on them.
There was an incident last week, unrelated to Iraq, that symbolizes how off base McCain’s opponents are in their attacks. At a town hall meeting in Des Moines, a local businessman and alleged Baptist minister (who appears to be unaffiliated with the DNC or a credentialed media organization) asked McCain if a story from the book “The Real McCain” is accurate, to wit – “This question goes to mental health and mental health care. Previously, I’ve been married to a woman that was verbally abusive to me. Is it true that you called your wife a ‘cunt’?”
While a candidate’s character and temperament are certainly fair game, this McCain critic addressed the issue in the ugliest possible way. Even if it’s true, it simply isn’t sporting to judge a person by the nastiest thing he/she has said to his/her spouse, especially if it happened in 1992. But this unpleasant incident sums up the Democrat approach to McCain thus far – avoiding the opportunity to make serious criticisms in favor of cheap, disingenuous attacks. All indications are that Democrats will benefit from massive turnout in November, which is the same thing polls said in 2004. Democrats can’t afford to take that turnout for granted, and they must avoid unforced errors if they want to put McCain away and win the White House.