Thursday, May 29, 2008
I am pleasantly surprised that Barack Obama turns out to be scrappy in his jousting with John McCain. Of particular interest is the back-and-forth about the war in Iraq, and foreign policy in general. Apparently, McCain means to slam Obama's honor, patriotism, integrity, manliness, etc., each and every time the young whippersnapper so much as dares to mention foreign policy or military matters. I'm sure McCain will learn to pedal the rhetoric back a bit as he adjusts to the pace of a summer-long campaign. The one soldierly virtue that the Republicans need this time around, and that McCain has in abundance, is steadfastness: don't wait for McCain to start going wobbly when the polls are down. The other soldierly virtues, not so much; the problem for the classic Republican national security campaign that McCain will run (and that won in 2004) is that anybody paying attention can see that a hawk is exactly what the USA doesn't need at this juncture. Politically speaking, the war is exceedingly unpopular. The war aim isn't clear, criteria for "victory" are very fuzzy. The President, speaking at the Air Force Academy graduation yesterday, said that he was going to make clear what victory and closure would consist of, and then launched into an impossible rhetorical laundry list (secular democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan; the region at peace and prosperity; no "havens for the terrorists," and three or four other "items"). It was almost a self-parodic illustration of the extent of the quagmire. Meanwhile, Barack Obama (unlike Hillary Clinton) offers an unambiguous alternative: his stated goal all along has been to extricate the US from Iraq as quickly as possible. If the election thus becomes a referendum on the war - vote for McCain if you think that the war is a good idea, vote for Obama if you don't - by all indications McCain loses. Add to this personality differences: McCain is all prickly impatience, and he is unable to conceal his contempt for opponents, while the laid-back Obama dishes out a feel-good rhetoric of conciliation, and comes out of the primaries with a reputation as the high-roader. McCain is badly whipsawed. He can't win without conservative support, but the sense of the electorate is that the conservatives have had their turn at bat and it's time for a new inning. McCain, the angry old man (and notably pale of visage I might add) is coming to this scenario out of central casting. Obama should keep on talking about the war, about diplomacy, about national security. Take that issue away from McCain and he's got precious little left to fight with.