This Means War

Democrats attack McCain’s war record. McCain rejoices.

Sen. John McCain

Top McCain adviser Charlie Black was eviscerated last week for suggesting that a terrorist attack would help John McCain win the presidency. Please. If al-Qaida really wanted McCain in the Oval Office, the terrorists would attack his military record.

On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Obama supporter retired Gen. Wesley Clark, remarkably, went there: “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” (Full context here.) So did liberal blogger John Aravosis, writing that “[g]etting shot down, tortured, and then doing propaganda for the enemy is not command experience.” On Monday, former Obama adviser Rand Beers argued that McCain’s isolation as a POW limited his insight on national security issues.

The McCain camp could barely contain its joy at having the senator’s war record besmirched. “The American people will judge harshly anyone who demeans or attacks [McCain’s] service,” spokesman Brian Rogers said Sunday. Bright and early on Monday, the campaign launched a “McCain Truth Squad” dedicated to defending the senator’s record. (Well, relaunched, technically—his campaign unveiled a similar effort in South Carolina in January.) On a conference call, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., declared himself “utterly shocked” by Clark’s comment. Barack Obama indirectly denounced Clark during a speech on patriotism, and his campaign later issued a statement saying Obama “rejects” the remarks. But Rogers was unmoved: “We’ve learned we need to wait and see what Sen. Obama actually does, rather than take him at his word.”

As Obama and his surrogates should know, any chance McCain has to talk about his military service is a net positive for the Arizona senator, especially if it’s in the context of an “attack.” So far in the campaign, Obama has been hogging all the umbrage. He started a site to refute e-mail smears; he took offense when a Republican congressman referred to him as “that boy”; he cries foul every time someone uses his middle name. Now McCain gets to show that Obama’s not the only one being attacked unfairly.

But the best part about McCain’s defense? It doubles as offense. Over the weekend, the campaign unveiled a new slogan, “Putting Country First.” The message: John McCain serves his country first and himself second, while Barack Obama does the opposite. (If that sounds familiar, recall Obama’s charge that Hillary Clinton would “say and do anything to get elected.”) The “McCain Truth Squad” fits the new theme snugly: 1) It suggests Democrats are desperate enough to attack McCain for serving his country, and 2) contrasts McCain’s military service with Obama’s lack thereof. If the TV commercial isn’t in the can already, I bet it’ll be on YouTube by the end of the week.

McCain’s camp has experience fielding potshots at his military career. Back in April, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., essentially denounced McCain for being a fighter pilot: “What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues.” McCain took public offense; Rockefeller apologized. Earlier this month, Gore Vidal questioned McCain’s war record in a New York Times Magazine interview: “Who started this rumor that he was a war hero? Where does that come from, aside from himself? About his suffering in the prison war camp?” The McCain camp declined to respond, presumably noting the “only a crank argues with a crank” rule.

Obama’s camp is in a bind. On the one hand, Clark’s point—that being a prisoner of war has little bearing on one’s ability to be commander in chief of the United States—is defensible. It would be political suicide, though, for Obama to say so. The best strategy would be a full-out denunciation of attacks on McCain’s record—but only if his supporters actually cut it out. When John McCain called for North Carolina Republicans to pull an ad linking Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the state GOP went ahead and aired it. Democrats denounced the apparent wink-and-nod. Here’s Obama’s chance to look like a strong leader by keeping his surrogates in check—and to stop them from pursuing a loser issue.