Today, John McCain did the full Cheney. In his speech at the Virginia Military Institute in which he laid out his extensive support for the war in Iraq, the Arizona senator matched the vice president’s scorn for his political opponents. McCain said Democrats who oppose the president’s plans for Iraq are not just wrong on the facts but are seeking “advantage in the next election” and “the temporary favor of the latest public opinion poll.”
A lot of people have written about McCain’s visit to Liberty University after calling Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” as the ultimate act of sucking up to his party’s conservative base. Yes, but that was a single visit. McCain has hardly become a flamboyant panderer on abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research. With today’s speech, however, McCain can no longer be said to be holding much red meat for the right in reserve.
What’s new here is obviously not McCain’s unhedged support for the war. He’s talked about that at length. What makes this speech different is the full-force, no-caveats attack on his opponents. It went beyond attacking policy inconsistencies—such as the fact that Democrats voted to confirm Gen. David Petraeus as Iraqi commander but against his plan for action—or raising questions about how opponents of the war would deal with the chaos following an American withdrawal. It repeatedly questioned not just their views but their motives, ending with a moving story about a heroic Navy SEAL officer whose bravery McCain juxtaposes with those seeking “temporary political advantage.”
Seventy-five percent of Republicans still support Bush on the war. They also like to see their party fighting back. (That’s why Bush picked the fight with Democrats by handing a recess appointment of Swiftboat Veterans backer Sam Fox.) The question the McCain camp wants Republican voters asking is whether Mitt Romney or even dream candidate Fred Thompson has the personal experience or military background to win the war while simultaneously whomping on Democratic opponents.
Will Republicans buy the aggressive posture? They distrust McCain in part because Democrats have often said he’s their favorite Republican. But it’s certainly easier for McCain to win them over on the war than it would be on social issues, the way Romney is trying to do. McCain has the advantage of believing what he is saying on this subject quite passionately. He does believe in the surge, and in Gen. Petraeus, and in doing what it takes to win the war, even if it means sending a lot more troops. Lest there be any doubt about his sincerity, McCain’s son Jimmy is about to be deployed as a Marine.
Throughout the speech, McCain is judicious about his military assessments. Though there are signs of progress, victory is not certain, he says. If victory is ever achieved, it will be bloody and costly. He knows, he says, the cost of listening to politicians and military leaders who are too optimistic. He even recites the wildly rosy predictions made by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to prove that, despite his view that the surge is working, he’s not delusional.
When it comes to talking about his political opponents, though, there are no caveats. Even President Bush, not a man known for seeing the world in shades of gray, regularly throws a line into his Iraq speeches to the effect that while he disagrees with Democrats and their policies, he doesn’t question their motivations. McCain not only questions, he draws a conclusion. Democrats are motivated not by their beliefs and judgment but by sheer, cynical politics. (This goes further than Cheney, who explained to Rush Limbaugh about Democrats: “I don’t want to question everybody’s motives.”)
This choice has costs. McCain has said he’d rather win the war than the election, and his supporters argue that he’s trying to wake people up about the situation the country is in. But politicizing the issue so blatantly is likely to polarize the debate further and make McCain’s task of selling a bigger commitment in Iraq even harder. By giving Democrats the finger, he helps them consolidate not just their anti-war base but everyone who doesn’t see the issue of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq as a battle between the righteous and the grasping.
In New Hampshire and Michigan, independent voters can cast ballots in the Republican primary, and in 2000, they helped McCain win in both places. But independents don’t like the war or the troop surge, and these days they have strong negative feelings about the Republican Party. They also tend to balk at talk that seems excessively political. McCain truly may care more about winning the war than winning the election. But at the moment, he looks poised to lose both.