by Adam | John McCain is in a very tough spot this year. He represents an unpopular party going for a third straight term in the white house (something only accomplished once in the last 60 years), his party has a large and growing registration gap, and he lacks the charismatic appeal of his opponent. But most fundamentally, a majority of the public prefers Obama's policy proposals to McCain's on nearly every major issue, from health care to tax policy to foreign policy. These issues have become more and more difficult to deny.
As such, McCain really only has one clear path to victory. He must paint Obama as unfit for office and make the election a referendum on his readiness. His only hope is that Obama's negatives can outshine all the issues that matter.
Nowhere is this strategy more clear than in the recent movement from the McCain camp on Iraq. McCain campaigned in the primaries on his support of the war and willingness to stay the course. The problem with this approach is it is a clear loser in the general election. As such, the McCain campaign has pivoted - slowly at first but with increasing intensity - to redefine McCain's policies in a more palatable way. The goal is to whittle away Obama's ability to show sharp contrast on the issue.
We all remember McCain's infamous "100 years in Iraq" comment. Now, the McCain campaign was quick to soften those words and make it clear that McCain did not expect 100 years of combat in Iraq. However, as Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker famously pointed out:
...what the context shows, I think, is that yanking that sound bite out of context isn’t really all that unfair. McCain wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes and how many Americans get killed achieving that goal—that is, the goal of not getting any more Americans killed. And once that goal is achieved, we’ll stay.
(Emphasis is original.) So, really, this policy was the epitome of the "stay the course" plan, with the goal being to stay longer.
As McCain moved on to the fall campaign, though, he realized he needed to narrow the rhetorical gap between himself and Obama. Obama was consistently hammering McCain on the "100 years" comment, contrasting it with his 16 month withdrawl plan. McCain's response was to paint a vision for the future, that we will win by 2013. This was a pretty clever strategy, as 5 more years of war sounds an awful lot better than a 100-year presence. Of course, McCain had no evidence or expert backing - none at all - to suggest that Iraq would or could be stable, peaceful, and run by a friendly and democratically elected government by then. But the point was to narrow the rhetorical chasm between his position and Obama's, and to create a clear, relatively short path to "victory", even if it was purely imaginary.
Still, this was not really enough of a change - Obama was planning on removing troops from Iraq and McCain was not - at least not in his first term. Early this month, McCain quietly, almost in a backdoor fashion, moved the goalposts still closer. In his plan to balance the budget by 2012, McCain simply asserts that he will get massive savings from "victory in the and Afghanistan operations". This is really an incredible claim, basically a backdoor movement of the vision of victory in 2013, to an actual campaign pledge of victory and substantial withdrawl by February 2012. After all, his balanced budget hinged on these funds, and he promised that balanced budget. It's hard to overstate what a big rhetorical shift this is, and it was barely noted in the mainstream media. I had to look a while to even find an op-ed from a major media outlet that mentioned that announcement.
Of course, even this was not enough. Americans don't want withdrawl by 2012, they want withdrawl beginning in January 2008 and ending ASAP. So, McCain seems to be in the process of crossing the final bridge - simply declaring victory right now. One of his surrogates is going as far as saying that McCain could even beat Obama out of Iraq. Now, they aren't going to commit to that, because as we all know, McCain thinks timetables are very very bad. But since the surge has "worked", clearly we have won, right?
From a 100 year occupation, to possible victory in 5 years, to the promise of victory and withdrawl in less than 4 years, to victory at hand. It's a remarkable shift that shows how completely untenable the Bush Iraq policies are for anyone seeking national office.
The recent train of events, with the Iraqi leadership essentially endorsing Obama's withdrawl plan, has been an incredible strategic nightmare for the McCain campaign. Suddenly, McCain is left with almost no room to argue that Obama's plans for Iraq are shortsighted. He's basically reduced to insisting that Obama was wrong about the surge, although he's engaged in epic distortions in his effort to make that a big deal. But as far as the future goes, he's basically turned the distinction into, "Obama will withdrawl immediately and lose. I will withdrawl really really soon, and win."
Vote McCain! He calls it winning when he leaves! That seems like a good bumper sticker to me.