Now that the campaign of John McCain has evaporated, it’s almost certain that next year’s Republican nominee will not make a full-strength, years-long military push aimed at “victory” in Iraq the centerpiece of the G.O.P.’s fall ’08 message.
So when Mr. McCain’s foreign policy soul mate, Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, forcefully defended the war escalation on Meet the Press yesterday, his appearance represented more of a trip down nearly five years of memory lane than a preview of coming GOP campaign tactics.
In the past, a politician who dared question the need for an invasion and occupation of Iraq was instantly relegated to the radical, and unpatriotic, fringes. Now it is Mr. Graham’s (and Mr. McCain’s) fight-them-there-so-we-won’t-fight-them-here mantra that is increasingly out of step with mainstream public opinion.
And now it is the opponents of the war who are asserting themselves in increasingly blunt and emotional terms.
Take for instance, Mr. Graham’s Democratic sparring partner on Meet the Press, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who in the closing minutes of the show got up the nerve to confront the Republican’s foreign-policy point man.
Officially, the 20-minute discussion was designed to dovetail with stepped up efforts from Congressional Democrats (and even some Republicans now) to use the legislative process to compel President Bush to make a significant change of course in Iraq. And not surprisingly, much of the conversation was monopolized by Mr. Graham, who smoothly fended off follow-up after follow-up from host Tim Russert. Mr. Russert’s incredulousness was certainly justified, since Mr. Graham leaned on two contradictory arguments, calling the troop surge a rousing success in one breath, only to cry in the next that the surge is still in its early stages and that it’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about its effectiveness.
Mr. Webb, meanwhile, seemed for much of the encounter as if he’d been overcoached, advised to circle every question asked of him back to the amendment he offered in the Senate last week that would have guaranteed troops a month of time off for every month they are deployed. His point is well taken—military guidelines actually call for a two to one ratio of time off to time in service, and the amendment, which attracted 56 yes votes, would have cleared the Senate had it not been for a Republican filibuster.
“We’re now in a situation where the soldiers and the Marines are having less than a one to one ratio, and somebody needs to speak up for them rather than simply defending what this president’s been doing,” Mr. Webb said at one point.
He returned to that very point, though with different wording, several times.
But his argument had a sterile feel to it. They came across as recited bullet points from a position paper. One might expect a politician whose appeal (and probably) effectiveness is rooted in his own personal story to take a different tack.
Born into a proud military family, a lifelong Republican and who served as Ronald Reagan’s Navy Secretary, and the father of a soldier who served in Iraq, Mr. Webb comes with rather unique credentials for a Democratic senator. He only entered electoral politics last year because of his outrage over the bullheadedness of the war’s supporters, not to mention their refusal to take heed of his pre-invasion warnings about the dangers of an occupation, many of which have proven wise. Mr. Webb left the GOP and last year ousted a Republican incumbent who would otherwise be running for President now.
But for most of the program, Mr. Webb seemed either an unskilled politician or an unusually self-effacing one. He failed to mention his compelling biographical details and left casual viewers unaware that he is one of only two Vietnam combat veterans in the Senate. As a result, his words today may not have found as much resonance as they could have.
Until Mr. Graham provoked a powerful, palpably human response from him.
The flare-up occurred when Mr. Graham presented his pleas for a prolonged “surge” as representative of the troops in Iraq, who, he said, just want a chance to “win.” At that, Mr. Webb, visibly irritated, interjected.