Running On The Surge


Patrick Ruffini wonders about the McCain strategy:

The issue I keep coming back to is Iraq. Why isn't McCain telling people that he is the key reason why things are turning around in Iraq? His decisive support for the surge was a key part of his message in the primaries, but has been nonexistent in the general.

This may seem like an odd issue on which to engage. Iraq is supposed to be toxic. And yet McCain has repeatedly engaged on it, most recently in challenging Obama to go to Iraq with him ... Bringing things back to the surge would actually allow McCain to trash the incompetence, etc. of the previous Iraq strategy, aligning himself with most voters. But by elevating the issue, he'd also be performing a public service -- aligning public support for the war with the partisan divide, hence increasing it, and getting the message out about the improving situation on the ground. At a minimum, an effort like this, even if it fell short, would render a rapid withdrawal under an Obama administration politically untenable.

The surge also happens to be a remarkable testament to McCain's judgment and his aptitude to be Commander-in-Chief. Though energy might be a more profitable issue in some respects, I don't know that McCain has room to get the contrast he needs on it given his past opposition to things like ANWR. McCain can get an election winning contrast on Iraq if he can use his positioning to improve the underlying optics of how the public perceives the issue.

I'd second the motion. If I were the McCain camp, I'd be running a slew of ads emphasizing 1) how bad things looked in Iraq in late 2006, 2) how much better they look today, and 3) the lonely role that McCain played in championing the surge. The ads should contrast McCain with Rumsfeld and with Obama (implicitly linking the Democratic nominee to the pre'-07 approach to Iraq), they should feature testimonials from U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, and they should hammer away at a single theme: We were losing, now we're winning, and John McCain made all the difference.

I'm skeptical that this will provide an "election winning contrast," as Patrick phrases it, but then I'm skeptical that there are any "election winning contrasts" available to McCain at this point. I am sure, though, that foreign policy is the GOP nominee's strongest terrain, and that if the foreign-policy debate boils down to McCain and Obama bickering over who has the best plan to capitalize on the success of the surge, then Obama can neutralize McCain's edge - both because his "withdrawal over 16 months" plan is closer to what most Americans say they believe than McCain's more open-ended position, and because Obama is politically skillful enough to finesse his way toward a Nixonesque "peace with honor" message that won't be easily dismissed as "cut and run." The only sure way for McCain to make the Iraq issue work for him is to make the debate about the recent past rather than the future, and to use the experience of the last two years - where (at least for the moment) he looks good, and Obama looks bad - to increase his advantage on the "who do you trust?" scale. This approach is fraught with risk, of course, because if the election becomes about the less recent past - i.e. the decision to invade Iraq in the first place - it's advantage Obama once again. But risk is something the McCain campaign needs to learn to live with.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway.