By FRANK RICH
BEFORE they were sidetracked into a new war against The New York Times, the Rush Limbaugh posse had it right about John McCain. He is a double agent. Some Democrats do admire and like him. So does Jon Stewart, and so do many liberal editorial boards and card-carrying hacks in the mainstream American press. So, in fact, do many at The Times, including myself. As long as I don’t look too hard at the fine print.
You’ve got to love a guy who said a few years ago that he regretted likening Mr. Limbaugh to “a circus clown” because of all the complaints from circus clowns insulted by the comparison. “I would like to extend my apologies to Bozo, Chuckles and Krusty,” Senator McCain told a rather startled Neil Cavuto of Fox News.
What’s more, Ann Coulter and Tom DeLay aren’t entirely wrong when they bluster that a vote for Mr. McCain amounts to a vote for Hillary Clinton (or, for that matter, Barack Obama). The Arizona senator’s otherwise conservative record is closer to the Democrats on immigration, campaign-finance reform, stem-cell research, global warming, oil drilling in Alaska, waterboarding, Gitmo and, until a recent flip-flop, the Bush tax cuts. In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait concluded that Mr. McCain’s Senate votes made him “the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington” during the first Bush term.
All of which should make Democrats more nervous than the clowns of the hard right. Might Mr. McCain so blur distinctions that he could grab enough independents to triumph? He won even among antiwar and anti-Bush voters in New Hampshire. A Mason-Dixon poll last week found Mr. McCain beating either Senator Obama or Senator Clinton in must-win Florida.
The good news for the Democrats so far is that whatever Mr. McCain’s sporadic overlap with liberals, he is emulating almost identically the suicidal Clinton campaign against Mr. Obama. He has mimicked Mrs. Clinton’s message and rhetorical style, her tone-deaf contempt for Mr. Obama’s cultural appeal, and her complete misreading of just how politically radioactive the war in Iraq remains despite its migration from the front page.
Like his prototype, Mr. McCain trumpets his long years of experience to an electorate that currently associates experience with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. He further channels Mrs. Clinton by belittling Mr. Obama’s oratory as an “eloquent but empty call for change” — a tact that calls attention to how flat and uninspiring his own speeches can be. (Again like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. McCain is at his best in small groups and town-hall meetings.)
He also likes to counter hope with gloom — as if he wants to put Armageddon, rather than a chicken, in every pot. But after seven years of doom, Americans are as hungry for optimism as they were for Reagan’s “Morning in America” after Carter’s malaise. As Rudy Giuliani learned the hard way, the political potency of 9/11 has gone the way of John Ashcroft and color-coded terror alerts.
Most luckily for Democrats, Mr. McCain is in even greater denial than Mrs. Clinton about Iraq. On Monday he cited a USA Today/Gallup poll to assert that “the majority of Americans believe the surge is succeeding.” In fact, that poll found that only 43 percent of Americans see an upturn in Iraq. Let’s posit that many or even most voters do believe (correctly) that the surge has improved security. Even so, the political needle hasn’t budged. The same Gallup poll found that a somewhat higher-than-usual 60 percent of Americans still call the war “a mistake,” as a majority has since the summer of 2005. For a year now, a majority has also favored a timetable for removing troops, no matter what happens on the ground.
Though Mr. McCain maintains that Republicans were routed in the 2006 midterms because of Congressional overspending and corruption, that’s wishful thinking. With all due respect to Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff and the bridge to nowhere, that election was mostly a repudiation of a war that was as unpopular then as it is on the eve of its fifth anniversary in 2008.
That’s why Mr. McCain was already on the defensive in his early skirmishes with Mr. Obama last week, after Mr. Obama dared point out that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq prior to the American invasion. Mr. McCain was reduced to arguing that such annoying little details are out of bounds because they belong to “the past.”
You can’t blame Mr. McCain for trying. His role back then in enabling the fiasco was far more active than Mrs. Clinton’s, and it’s far more visible on videotape. He didn’t just vote to authorize the war; in response to a question from Tim Russert in September 2002, he lent his military credibility to the administration’s undermanned war plan. When Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, challenged that strategy in a February 2003 Senate hearing by calling for “several hundred thousand soldiers,” Mr. McCain did not speak up in support. That month he went on “Hannity & Colmes” to say that the war “will be brief,” that post-Saddam Iraq is “going to be paid for by the Iraqis,” and that America will “send a message” from Syria to Saudi Arabia that “democracy can take hold in the Middle East.”
The one part of his Iraq past that Mr. McCain does want us to recall now is his subsequent criticism of the war’s execution. But contrary to his current claims, he never publicly demanded Mr. Rumsfeld’s head. And when Mr. McCain did call for more troops in Iraq, he was again in sync with Democrats like Joe Biden, with whom he made that case on “Meet the Press” in August 2003.
Rather than dwell on this ancient history, Mr. McCain said last week, we should talk about “what we are going to do now.” But his answer to “what we are going to do now” in Iraq is merely more of what he did then.
If, as he says, the surge is “succeeding,” voters may well join the Democratic ticket (possibly including the Vietnam War hero Jim Webb?) in asking why we’ll still have some 140,000 troops on indefinite duty in Iraq as of this summer, a year and a half after this “temporary” escalation was announced. It will be a slam-dunk for Democrats to argue that it’s long past time for the Iraqis to stand up on a sensible timetable that will allow the Americans to stand down.
It’s also possible, especially now that Iraq’s provincial elections have been abruptly scuttled by warring Shiite factions, that the surge will stop “succeeding” and Iraq will again erupt in sectarian violence. Then Mr. McCain will have to propose a new and larger surge — and explain how he’ll pay for it while the economy slumps and he extends the Bush tax cuts. Either way, he offers voters no tangible exit strategy beyond his constant refrain that the commander in chief should take his orders from Gen. David Petraeus.
Since the mere mention of Iraq is dangerous to Mr. McCain’s and Mrs. Clinton’s claims about the exalted value of their experience, they have countered by trying to portray Mr. Obama as a foreign policy moron. They’ve even alighted on the identical bogus charge, accusing him of threatening to recklessly bomb our dear ally Pakistan. What Mr. Obama actually said last summer was that he would go after Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s mountains when there was actionable intelligence even if a recalcitrant President Musharraf refused to act.
As with his early opposition to the Iraq war, Mr. Obama has proved to be prescient once more. His Pakistan stance anticipated both the latest Bush administration policy — the C.I.A. killed the senior Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi in just such a unilateral strike within Pakistan in late January — and Mr. McCain’s own campaign posture. When Mr. McCain promises to follow Osama bin Laden to “the gates of hell,” he too is vowing to go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan without restraint.
In desperation to land some knockout punch, some McCain supporters, following the precedent of Clinton surrogates, are already invoking Mr. Obama’s race, middle name and tourist snapshot in Somali dress to smear his patriotism. The idea is to make him a Manchurian candidate, a closet anti-Semitic jihadist trained in a madrassa run by, say, Louis Farrakhan.
What repeatedly goes unrecognized by all of Mr. Obama’s opponents is that his political Kryptonite is the patriotism he offers in lieu of theirs. His upbeat notion of a yes-we-can national mobilization for the common good, however saccharine, speaks to the pride and idealism of Americans who are bone-weary of a patriotism defined exclusively by flag lapel pins, the fear of terrorism and the prospect of perpetual war.
A few more “macaca” moments for the nearly all-white G.O.P. could spell its doom. Recognizing the backlash that has followed the racially tinged smears leveled at Mr. Obama so far, Mr. McCain wasted no time in publicly scolding the right-wing radio talk-show host who railed against Barack Hussein Obama at one of his rallies last week. Or perhaps, as those of us who like Mr. McCain want to believe, he is simply a man of honor: he knows that history will judge him exactingly on how he runs against America’s first black or female presidential nominee, win or lose.