The last time he ran for President, John McCain lost out on the Republican nomination and yet still emerged as the most popular political figure—by far—in the United States.
The opposite fate may await him in 2008.
Mr. McCain’s nomination-seeking credentials have never appeared stronger, and his G.O.P. rivals are either underwhelming or ideologically vulnerable. But Mr. Popularity’s close association with what may be the least popular war in the country’s history is a ticking time bomb that threatens to destroy his standing with the broad fall electorate.
Until now, he has pulled off a rather deft balancing act, maintaining his philosophical support—first articulated many years before 9/11—for the idea of forcibly democratizing Iraq, while lashing out at the Bush administration’s planning and execution of the war.
Indeed, Mr. McCain seemed to have staked out almost enviable ’08 turf on the subject in the days immediately following November’s Democratic Congressional sweep, back when conventional wisdom strongly suggested that President George W. Bush would be compelled, however grudgingly, to begin scaling back the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Mr. McCain loudly registered his objections to any withdrawal, instead renewing his call for a massive infusion of more troops. With that stroke, he moved measurably closer to making peace with the hard-line, pro-Bush wing of the G.O.P. that undermined him in 2000.
And since it was assumed that his protestations were purely for posterity—this was, remember, when the President was still insisting that troop levels were fine as they were—Mr. McCain also seemed to have ably positioned himself to deflect the Iraq issue in the fall of ’08. It was a noble cause, Mr. McCain would be able to tell his fellow countrymen, and it would have succeeded—if only they’d used my strategy.
It seemed that he had found that magical meeting point of pragmatism and straight talk: embrace an unpopular position and win plaudits for exercising your conscience with little or no political cost.
Then something funny happened: Mr. Bush—apparently—decided to take Mr. McCain up on his advice.
The President is due to formally unveil his reformulated Iraq strategy on Wednesday, Jan. 10, but all indications are that he will embrace the escalation that Mr. McCain has been advocating, shipping upwards of 20,000 more American men and women to Iraq in a push to bring stability to a country that’s now engaged in what amounts to a civil war.
Suddenly, Mr. McCain’s 2008 prospects are inextricably tied to the success of this last-ditch surge. John Edwards, who could end up being Mr. McCain’s general-election foe in ’08, has taken to calling the impending military effort “the McCain Doctrine.”
If that label sticks, Mr. McCain will have a major political problem. Not even the most outspoken proponents of the surge have articulated a scenario whereby it leads to anything that can be considered a clear-cut victory. Even if the surge “works,” we might not know it for years. Any vindication of the policy, in other words, is unlikely to predate Nov. 4, 2008.
Perhaps that explains Mr. McCain’s visit (accompanied by Joe Lieberman) to the American Enterprise Institute last week, where he embraced the group’s report calling for a larger-scale and more permanent escalation in Iraq. In so doing, he may have hoped to free himself from liability for Mr. Bush’s pending recommendations.
“The worst of all worlds would be a short, small surge of U.S. forces,” Mr. McCain warned. The looming surge, he repeatedly insisted, will be doomed unless it is a “sustained” venture.
A cynic could charge that Mr. McCain is now dissembling in a frantic effort to return to the halcyon days of November, when he was able to express continuing, unwavering support for the war without being held to account for its execution. (The less cynical among us might also recall a time—before Mr. McCain began courting Jerry Falwell and proponents of “intelligent design”—when any cynic leveling such an accusation against the fearless articulator of “straight talk” would have been laughed out of the room.)
The distinction that Mr. McCain is now drawing—between short-term and long-term surges—is hardly insignificant, but it’s doubtful that casual voters will have much appetite for the Senator’s explanations and justifications, should he emerge as the Republican nominee in two years.
Because if Mr. Bush’s “new strategy” proves just as disastrously ineffective as the current course, most Americans in the fall of 2008 will look back to this time and remember the President’s choice in stark terms: to end the war or crank it up. Mr. McCain’s position on that basic question is—and will still be—amply clear.
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