If you believe that the recent military progress in parts of Iraq will snowball and lead to a political reconciliation among that country’s various factions and fundamentally transform American public opinion on the war—and that this will all happen within the next few months—then John McCain is sitting pretty.
And if not, well, then he’s cooked.
Since President Bush announced it and he embraced it in January, Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign has been linked to the progress—or lack thereof—of the troop surge. And he continues to ensure that this is the case.
In a debate last Wednesday, he sharply took Mitt Romney to task when his rival offered a less than stalwart endorsement of the surge. Mr. McCain kept it up on Sunday, in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I am guardedly optimistic,” he told host George Stephanopoulos, “that if we send the message that we are there to win and let this surge continue then I think you could see a messy but favorable outcome.”
The Arizonan’s Sunday morning appearance kicked off what has been a long-anticipated week for war backers and foes alike. Congress will hear from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who almost certainly will argue for a sustained surge, with the possibility of only the most modest of troop reductions. Two months ago, this was the week that Democrats believed would produce large-scale Republican defections, but the news of some military success—amplified by a public relations blitz from the White House and its supporters—now seems likely to keep wavering Republicans in line, thus extending the surge into next year.
Mr. McCain is determined to take advantage of this moment, playing up his early and unwavering support for the surge at a time when he thinks Americans are willing to re-examine their war skepticism. Key to his political strategy is separating himself from the first four years of the war while portraying the surge as a long—overdue fresh start that he’d been arguing for all along.
“After nearly four years of a failed strategy, we’ve had this strategy in place for a short period of time,” he said on Sunday. “I understand the frustration of the American people. I shared it.”
Mr. McCain is also using his unblinking devotion to the surge to burnish his image as a principled leader who isn’t cowed by fickle public opinion polls.
“I understand that my position is not met with the approval of a lot of Americans,” he said. “I have to do what I believe is right and best for the country.” Unfortunately for Mr. McCain, however, there are ominous signs that the recent progress that the pro-war side has claimed will be enough only to prevent Congress from taking steps to end the war in the short term—and that discouraging headlines about the failures of the Iraqi government will define the war debate in the long term.
After more than four years of war, it will take far more than a limited, momentarily demonstrable success for Mr. McCain to truly earn vindication in the public square.
Mr. Stephanopoulos opened his interview with Mr. McCain this weekend by reading some polling data: 28 percent of the public believes the surge has been successful, and 53 percent believe General Petraeus will issue a progress report that portrays conditions in Iraq as better than they actually are. It will take nothing short of a sweeping shift in the news coming out of Iraq to erase America’s war fatigue.
Even Republicans, who may be more willing to subscribe to the White House’s Iraq optimism, are likely to remain wary of embracing Mr. McCain as their ’08 standard-bearer. Out of partisan loyalty, they may tell pollsters they agree with his positions, but many of them undoubtedly would prefer to nominate a presidential candidate who can artfully separate himself from the war if need be.
For now, the progress in Iraq has only been enough to keep Republicans in the House and Senate from jumping ship. Mr. McCain will need much more than that—and soon—to keep his own campaign from sinking.