If a salacious political firestorm is the media equivalent of Christmas morning, the events of the past few weeks have packed American punditry's stockings to the brim. From the appalling videos of Jeremiah Wright, to Barack Obama's cynical evasion of his pastor problem, to Hillary Clinton's Bosnia fables, the nation's televisions, radios and blogs are abuzz with the energy of scandal. Lost in the shouting, analysis and breathless reporting is an important political development: The Democrats have offered a few recent glimpses at their initial plan of attack against John McCain, and the clumsy, off-the-mark contents of their general election playbook should be encouraging to Republicans.
The most preposterous tactic employed so far is the Democratic National Committee's ham handed attempt to paint McCain as a flip flopper on the Iraq war. Last week the DNC recently churned out a sloppy and misleading web ad designed to highlight contradictions in McCain's rhetoric on this issue. The Republican National Committee fired back with a nine-page fact sheet tearing the ad's dishonest insinuations to shreds. Even CBS News, not exactly renowned for its rabid conservatism, concluded the ad "provided little-to-no context."
Setting the specifics aside, the overall thrust of the ad doesn't pass the smell test. Does Dean, Inc. actually believe average Americans will buy the McCain-flip-flopper narrative? John McCain stuck his neck out in support of this war and has steadfastly defended it, even in its darkest hours. He has repeatedly, and some say intractably, insisted that he'd rather lose the election than lose the war. He has made similar assertions every at step of his campaign, from the valleys of July to the mountaintops of February. If there's a knock on McCain, it's that he's too stubborn. Just ask any conservative who crossed his path during the fierce debate over illegal immigration last year. These obtuse charges of flip-flopping (leveled, incidentally, by the people who brought us John "I-voted-for-the-87-billion-before-I-voted-against-it" Kerry) are extraordinarily lame and ineffective.
Democrats also appear poised to play the warmonger card against McCain, reinforced by a delightfully out-of-context quote about 100 years of war in Iraq. During an exchange with a voter at a town hall meeting several months ago, McCain suggested that an American presence in Iraq could stretch into the next century. An outlandish comment? Not at all. Japan, Germany, and South Korea are exhibits A, B, and C. As McCain has explained time and again, there's a major distinction between a peacetime military presence and a wartime military presence during which casualties are suffered. Yet for a party that loves to lecture Americans about nuance, Democrats are totally unwilling to acknowledge this obvious distinction. They'd prefer to pile on McCain, distort his quote, and repeat the distortion endlessly. Both Senators Clinton and Obama have proven quite capable of executing this task. (Deliberately misrepresent McCain's comments? Yes we can!)
Fortunately, a prominent Democratic campaign adviser has provided Republicans with fresh ammunition to combat the '100 years' argument. It turns out that Gen. Tony McPeak, an Obama military confidant, made almost precisely the same argument about Iraq in a 2003 interview. When asked about Iraq he said, "We'll be there a century, hopefully. If it works right." So whenever Obama regurgitates the 100 years line to ridicule McCain, Republicans can simply cite Obama's own adviser, who sided with McCain on that particular point. It also seems like an uphill battle to claim that McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, doesn't understand the costs of armed conflict. Portraying a man who has personally suffered the ravages of war as a wild-eyed warmonger may prove to be a losing proposition.
Finally, the Left went on the warpath over a recent rhetorical misstep by McCain regarding Iran and its training of radical Islamic extremists. As the Arizona Senator gave a press conference during his overseas trip, flanked by Senate colleagues Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, he asserted that Iran was training Al Qaeda and subverting peace efforts in Iraq. Lieberman awkwardly interrupted McCain's comments, prompting him to clarify that Iran was training extremists, but not necessarily Al Qaeda. The Obama campaign pounced, needling McCain for his mistake within hours. Left-leaning bloggers were giddy over McCain's apparent gaffe.
Let's disregard the evidence that Iran is, in fact, aiding Shiite and Sunni extremists in the region and accept the notion that McCain misspoke. This line of attack still ends up as a loser for Democrats. Neither of McCain's chief rivals has a particularly stellar record of avoiding major foreign policy stumbles. Hillary Clinton is saddled with her Bosnia fib, affectionately known as "Sinbadgate," and Obama's had his share of flubs—from referencing the "president" of Canada to misidentifying the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman (and his vote) while attempting to engage in political trash talk over the Iraq war.
But beyond the glass houses principle, it doesn't seem especially wise for Democrats to draw attention to any of McCain's comments about radical Islam. Poll after poll shows Americans trust McCain far more than his opponents on issues of war and national security. Trying to score political points by exclaiming, "McCain called a group of murderous jihadists by the wrong name!" will only remind Americans of the grave threat we face. As many observers have previously pointed out, if this election is about national security, John McCain wins.
It would be naïve for Republicans to sit back and assume that the Democrats have tipped their entire hand this early in the game. They undoubtedly have a few more zingers in their bag of tricks, and the day-to-day grind of a presidential election will provide ample fodder for both sides down the stretch. The mainstream press can also be depended upon for an October surprise designed to damage the Republican candiate, so McCain is not out of the woods yet. His standing in national polls will ebb and flow. Prognostications of his inevitable triumph and demise will come and go as the weeks pass. At this early juncture, however, with the Democrats still seeking a nominee, Republicans should be buoyed by the notion that this election is absolutely winnable—especially if the recent pathetic attacks against McCain are any harbinger of things to come.
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