A Fitting Smear

In politics, what is accurate is not always fair and what is fair is not always accurate. Sign Up For

In politics, what is accurate is not always fair and what is fair is not always accurate.

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So it is that a deliberate distortion of a quotation from John McCain about Iraq—his supposed promise of a “100-year” war—may well sink his campaign in a way that the simple facts of his record and position should, but otherwise wouldn’t.

It was in January, at a town hall meeting just before the New Hampshire primary, that McCain made the comment that Democrats hope will come to define his attitude toward the unpopular war for millions of casual voters this fall. A questioner began by noting that President Bush “has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years,” at which point McCain cut him off and said: “Maybe a hundred. Make it 100.” And John McCain, proponent of the 100-year war, was born.

Democrats, not surprisingly, wasted little time in making the comment central to their bid to define McCain.

“We can’t afford to stay in Iraq, like John McCain said, for another hundred years,” Barack Obama has declared, while Hillary Clinton has charged that the Republican “is willing to keep this war going for 100 years.” Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, made the point earlier this week, as he has many times before, that McCain “is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years.”

McCain and his supporters, also not surprisingly, have responded with indignation. And at a strictly factual level, they have a point: The Democratic attack is based on a twisted interpretation of McCain’s words. At the New Hampshire town hall meeting, McCain went on to stress that the long-term presence he envisioned was not a long-term continuation of the war.

“We’ve been in Japan for 60 years,” he said. “We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.”

<pTrue enough: McCain has not publicly advocated anything like a 100-year war and his opponents have not been intellectually honest in addressing his remarks on the subject. But this hardly makes McCain a victim. Actually, if the 100-year tag sticks and ends up harming his candidacy, there will be a certain amount of justice to it.

The reality is that McCain has largely avoided paying a political price for his fervent support for the war, even though, logically, he should be suffering dearly for it. By a better than two-to-one margin, voters are against it and believe it never should have been waged. And yet McCain dramatically outpolls both Obama and Clinton when those same voters are asked which candidate they most want handling the war and foreign policy in general. And he owes his successful campaign for the G.O.P. nomination to the overwhelming support of antiwar independents and Republicans, who provided his winning margin in key early states.

Unfortunately, this seeming contradiction isn’t due to the antiwar electorate carefully weighing McCain’s record and creating some kind of sophisticated and nuanced reconciliation between his foreign policy values and theirs. Instead, it speaks to the fundamental truth that voters are, by and large, emotional and not rational. After five years of mostly depressing headlines, they are well aware that Iraq has not gone well and was probably a mistake. But they mostly know McCain for his personality—the fearless, independent-minded, no-BS war hero. Who better, many conclude, to clean up the mess in Iraq?

Democrats can recite the specifics of McCain’s foreign policy record until they turn blue in the face—his belief that the preemptive invasion was justified even though the pre-war rationale has been debunked, his embrace of the neoconservative worldview long before 9/11, the ardent support he receives from some of the chief architects of the war, and his eagerness to eschew diplomacy and to deal with Iran in much the same way as we dealt with Iraq— but it probably won’t matter. When it comes to public opinion, personality trumps policy details.

This is where the 100-year war argument comes in. No, it’s not what McCain has publicly advocated, nor is likely that he’s ever seriously entertained the concept. But, unlike the details of McCain’s foreign policy record, it is a line of attack that people can understand at an emotional level. It effectively pigeonholes McCain as “the war candidate,” which is exactly what he is: He believes in the ideas that underlie this war, he believes in continuing it well into the future (if not for 100 years), and he’s suggested he’d be O.K. with extending it to Iran, maybe even elsewhere.

The 100-year charge is the kind of inflammatory shorthand that actually gets attention—unlike most of McCain’s record. In fact, it’s just the sort of sticky, close-to-the-bone accusation that could end as this election’s version of the calumny that sank Al Gore’s presidential campaign eight years ago.

In 2000, Gore was unfairly charged with claiming to have invented the Internet. He never did. And yet it seemed believable to a great many people, in part because Gore had a career-long habit of reinventing himself in pursuit of the next rung on the political ladder. It was Gore who ran as the “son of the South” in his 1988 campaign, extolling the virtues of a youth spent tobacco farming. And it was the same Gore who positioned himself as America’s chief defender against Big Tobacco just eight years later. The same pattern played out over and over in his career. He’s hailed for his antiwar views now, but he was also one of the most hawkish Democrats on Middle East issues when he burst onto the national scene.

The Internet charge played into the perception of Gore’s public phoniness in a way that reached the masses. In the same way, the 100-year war charge speaks to the unnerving hawkishness that McCain represents. If he loses on those grounds, it won’t be unjustified.

A Fitting Smear