Take the Blame, Mr. President

McCain’s excellent advice for Bush.

Take my advice

Sen. John McCain has advice for how President Bush can rebuild support for the Iraq war. Try candor.

McCain regularly spars with the administration—he’s currently fighting Bush to end mistreatment of war prisoners—but he’s as hawkish as they are when it comes to Iraq. That’s why, in a speech Thursday outlining a new approach, he counseled frankness: The administration should avoid “rosy aspirations for near-term improvements in Iraq’s political or security situation, and more accurately portray events on the ground, even if they’re negative.”

Candor, of course, is always McCain’s solution. He has used bluntness as spin better than any other politician. He’ll tell you about his shortcomings before you can learn about them. Some pols hate being put on the couch. He campaigns with one. It’s efficient and effective and it wards off further probing. It’s also why he and his aides joke that the press is his political base. When McCain was asked after his remarks who was to blame for the dire situation in Iraq, he played to type: “I think everybody is to blame, including me. I didn’t anticipate the depth and the difficulty of the challenge we faced in postwar Iraq. … I could spend a half an hour pointing out the failings. I could also point out the failings and mistakes that are made in every war we’ve ever been in. … Mistakes are made in every conflict. The key is to fix them.” Bush, by McCain’s reckoning, should say much the same thing.

White House officials laugh. It’s all well and good for McCain to admit mistakes. He’s one of 100 senators. His reputation isn’t on the line. He is not responsible for the morale of soldiers in Iraq. The White House apparently believes that once Bush admitted a mistake the persecution would never stop. Democrats and the press would pounce, insisting on more hand-wringing and self-abnegation.

The refusal to admit error is a reasonable position for the president to take. It just isn’t working. According to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, just 33 percent of the country now gives Mr. Bush high marks for being “honest and straightforward,” down from 50 percent in January. The White House blames the press.

But the media can’t be blamed for everything. The news from Iraq is largely bad. The public is smart enough to distrust the nightly news producers. They’re also smart enough to know when they’re not getting straight talk. A little candor might break through that skepticism. Bush and McCain are both desperate to convince Americans that the war is still worth fighting and that the penalties for wavering are indeed severe. It’s just that McCain is the only one who will admit “[t]here is an undeniable sense that things are slipping in Iraq.”

Today the president fought back against Democrats who charge he distorted prewar intelligence. “It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began,” he scolded his critics. It’s the start of a concerted campaign by the president and his aides to call out Democrats who voted for the war but now seek to benefit politically from its unpopularity. This partisan fight also offers a chance to talk about those broader goals that led to the war. But Bush starts at a disadvantage. Fifty-seven percent of the country says he “deliberately misled” the nation about the case for war in Iraq. Maybe he can change those numbers by merely pointing at the other party.

But the president is fighting an old battle—prewar intelligence—rather than the current one—Iraq’s decay. He has got to face the present, and if he wants to make his case persuasive, he’s going to have to point the finger at himself, too.