Thursday, April 12, 2007

John McCain and the urgency of red-meat politics

Following up on my Monday post about John McCain:

In his speech yesterday to the American people…Correction…In his speech yesterday to the conservative Republican primary voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina, the beleaguered GOP presidential hopeful took the only route that is left open to him. He stood up for the Iraq war, which at this point is supported only by diehard Republicans, such as the folks who will vote next winter in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina. And he stood up for the guy who launched that war, a president who is broadly unpopular nationwide, except among the kinds of folks who vote in GOP primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina.

Perhaps the most amusing quote was provided yesterday by a McCain aide who, in reference to his boss’ Iraq speech, insisted that “none of those is a political calculation.” Yeah, right. No doubt McCain is sincere in his hawkish beliefs, but to argue that “none” of what he said was politically calculated is laughable. McCain’s tone was a giveaway. He is typically mild in his remarks about Democrats; indeed, he works with them frequently. But this time, he was scathing in his denunciations: “Before I left for Iraq, I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission. Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering.”

That’s red meat for the conservative primary voters who have been slow to warm to McCain. And he badly needs to dish the goods pronto, before he slides any further in the polls, or suffers any fresh fund-raising embarrassments. A new national poll of GOP voters has McCain in third place, behind Fred Thompson, an actor who, by most accounts, had two undistinguished terms in the Senate, and who has yet to declare a candidacy. And on the money front, the latest reports indicate that Mitt Romney, who unlike McCain is known to a fraction of Americans, still managed during the first quarter of ’07 to spend $12 million – the same amount of money that McCain was only able to raise.

Hence, McCain’s urgent need to channel Bush and Cheney, even if it meant embracing some of the same half-truths that have long soured most Americans on this administration. But McCain’s point, presumably, is that the typical GOP primary voter is still on board the mission. Which is why McCain yesterday said things like this: “Democrats argue we should redirect American resources to the 'real' war on terror, of which Iraq is just a sideshow. But whether or not al-Qaeda terrorists were a present danger in Iraq before the war, there is no disputing they are there now, and their leaders recognize Iraq as the main battleground in the war on terror.”

That’s a durable Bush talking point, which requires this interpretation: “Even though we successfully misled the American people into thinking that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in cahoots before the war, and launched the war for that false reason, we can now say that al Qaeda really is present in Iraq - thanks to the war we launched for that false reason.”

But the key half-truth needs further explanation. McCain’s speech, mimicking Bush, implies that al Qaeda is orchestrating the war against us in Iraq. The problem, as always, is that the claim doesn’t square with factual reality. Both the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a recent report by the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies, have concluded that foreign jihadists comprise somewhere between four and 10 percent of all the insurgent fights opposing American troops. The rest are native Iraqis who view us as occupiers. As the DIA concluded in February, “attacks by terrorist groups account for only a fraction of insurgent violence.”

But since McCain, in his speech, wasn’t seeking to appeal to the reality-based community, such quibbles are irrelevant. In a Fox News poll of likely GOP primary voters in South Carolina, 70 percent said last week that Bush is doing a good job, and 75 percent support the Iraq war. So maybe McCain's “straight-talking” hawkishness on Iraq will put him back in the hunt for conservative votes; in South Carolina (a traditionally pivotal GOP primary state, with strongly conservative sentiment), Giuliani stood at 26 percent in the Fox poll, with McCain one point behind.

The real test would come late next winter, presumably after he has outfought Rudy Giuliani and Romney, when he has to shift his pitch to the independents and Democrats who once embraced him. Strolling with 100 bodyguards through a Baghdad market and claiming “progress” might wash with the Republican right; it’s hard to imagine anyone else buying that.

Richard Nixon once said that if a Republican wants to be president, he must first run to the right and then to the center. But Iraq is becoming such a chasm that someone like McCain risks a steep plummet before he can even shift his footing.