In the Year 2013 …

The biggest news in John McCain’s “2013” speech today is his suggestion that he’d have troops out of Iraq:

By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced.

It’s purely hypothetical—McCain says it’s “what I would hope to have achieved” after his first term—but it’s still a rhetorical shift for McCain. Back in January, he slammed Mitt Romney for what McCain (misleadingly) said was Romney’s commitment to timetables for withdrawal. Until now, he has even declined to say when he’d like to start pulling troops out, let alone when he’d like to have “most” of them out.

Even hinting at a withdrawal date brings McCain way over from his hawkish “100 years” stance to a more palatable middle (even though “100 years” got twisted to sound more hawkish than it was). In the past, McCain has called a withdrawal date tantamount to “chaos, genocide” that would cede Iraq to al-Qaida. But today’s comments will reassure voters that he’s not as excited about keeping troops in Mesopotamia as his opponents claim. No doubt McCain would say that nothing has changed—that he has always “hoped” to be out as soon as possible, but that we’ll only exit once we’ve “won.” But in the ears of voters, a date—however vague—sounds a lot more moderate than no date.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, remains tethered to his pledge to have troops out within 16 months—a promise that seems extremely dubious to many experts. He’s had plenty of chances to mitigate that stance, most recently in the CBS debate, when Charlie Gibson asked him whether his pledge was “rock-hard.” But Obama refused to wobble. “The president sets the mission,” he told Gibson.

The difference now is that McCain has wiggle room where Obama does not. If Obama suggests he might stick around in Iraq for a few more years, he’ll be accused of breaking his pledge. If McCain suggests he’d pull out troops earlier than expected, no one will hold it against him. Obama still has his “I opposed the war” trump card, but McCain’s flexibility in the future could be a strong a weapon as Obama’s correctness in the past.