Tuesday, February 26, 2008

McCain Prospects Hinge on Iraq

The general election prospects of John McCain, the GOP nominee-in-waiting, depend on how well he can convince the public that America's winning the conflict and that our efforts have been worth it:

Senator John McCain said Monday that he needed to convince the American people that the troop escalation in Iraq was working and that American casualties there would continue to decline. If he did not, he said, “I lose” the election.

“Is there any doubt?” Mr. McCain said to reporters on his campaign bus.

But then he pulled back from his blunt assessment. “Let me not put it that stark,” he said, explaining that he believed people would judge his candidacy on his ability to handle the economy, which has emerged as a pre-eminent voter concern, as well as on national security.

Nevertheless, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, made clear that he believed his prospects in November would rest in large measure on the way the situation in Iraq played out.

“If I may, I’d like to retract ‘I’ll lose,’ ” he said. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt that how they judge Iraq will have a direct relation to their judgment of me.”

Mr. McCain said he believed opinion was shifting to his point of view, referring to a recent USA Today poll that, he said, showed that “now the majority of Americans believe the surge is succeeding.”

The USA Today/Gallup poll he was apparently referring to, however, found that not a majority, but 43 percent of Americans believed the troop increase was “making the situation there better,” an increase from 22 percent last July.

The poll, conducted Feb. 8 to 10, also underscored just how unpopular the war continues to be, with 60 percent saying it was a mistake.

Yet the new dynamic in Iraq — with American casualties plummeting and violence in Baghdad falling to 2005 levels — has altered the political landscape for Mr. McCain since last summer, when American troop deaths spiked and his candidacy ran aground.

Mr. McCain has, of course, staked his candidacy on his support for President Bush’s escalation strategy, which was unveiled early last year and resulted in more than 30,000 additional troops in Iraq.

When Mr. McCain’s campaign stalled, he set about reviving it with a “no surrender” tour meant to identify him even more closely with the strategy. He invariably cites his early call for assigning more troops to Iraq as evidence of his ability to handle what he calls the “transcendent challenge” facing the country in the form of radical, violent Islam.

Steven Warshawsky argued yesterday that Iraq's likely to be a losing issue for McCain, and that he needs to stake out a new position on the conflict - some type of "Iraqi Peace Plan" - that reassures voters that American troops will be coming home sooner rather than later.

Warshawsky badly misreads the polling data, however, and labeling a U.S. redeployment from Iraq a "peace plan" will open up the Arizona Senator to charges of appeasement from Defense hawks in his own party. Even Democrats aren't going to be sold by a "Republican Jimmy Carter."

McCain needs to make the case that a limited, long-term presence in Iraq is a vital U.S. interest. American forces are still in Germany, Japan, and other World War II-era missions, and Iraq will likely see a similar outcome.

We don't need 100,000 troops in Iraq permanently. We do need some kind of secure strategic basing arrangements that facilitate interoperability with other continuing American military operations, air, land, and sea. McCain's already articulated portions of that message on the hustings. He might think about making that theme a key part of upcoming stump speeches.

Photo Credit: New York Times