Americans don’t like losing. They didn’t like Jimmy Carter telling them America’s greatest days had already passed and that future generations would not live better than their parents. Withdrawing from Iraq garnered majority support because Americans considered defeat a foregone conclusion.
As conditions in Iraq have changed, however, the Democrats’ positions haven’t. Neither candidate has had an incentive to force the issue, so Iraq has faded into the background.
Now that the surge in Iraq has made winning a distinct possibility — though defining “victory” is a whole separate issue — either Obama or Clinton faces a potentially volatile fissure among Democratic voters. Anti-war liberals are not open compromise; they want the troops out of Iraq NOW, no matter the facts on the ground. Democratic-leaning moderates and independents, however, aren’t as ideologically pure or as certain.
With strong evidence pointing to significantly improved security conditions, calls to extract troops from Iraq could be framed as “choosing defeat.” This would force Obama or Clinton either to re-embrace the anti-war Left, which would alienate many mainstream members of their own party, or, conversely, cold-shoulder their own base. Doing the latter is particularly dangerous for Left-wing turnout in November, as the anti-war base already feels burned by the new Democratic Congress, which has been unable even to impact the course of the war.
Even if the eventual Democratic nominee flip-flops on a troop pull-out, though, optimism will not likely be the message, but rather a variation on “wait and see.” Which means Obama or Clinton could infuriate the base while energizing no one else.
In his CPAC speech, McCain set the stakes appropriately: “We arguing about hugely consequential things.” Next step for him is reminding Americans that what convinced Osama bin Laden he could defeat the United States was the retreat following Back Hawk Down in Somalia, in which 19 U.S. soldiers were killed. It won’t be hard to convince Americans that the morale boost for jihadists following surrender in Iraq would be too grave to contemplate.
Not only would McCain galvanize the conservative base, but he also could cast the general election as one of strength versus weakness, fighting to win versus choosing defeat. Clinton has been all over the Iraq map, so it is already her Achilles’ heel. Obama has positioned himself as the candidate of “hope,” tapping into ideals of American exceptionalism. That doesn’t square well with demands to retreat, despite clear progress.
With Americans leery of the economy, McCain will need to focus on kitchen-table issues in the election’s closing months, but he cannot hope to win solely on what is for him unfamiliar terrain. He was right about the surge, but that alone is not enough. He must force his Democratic opponent onto the defensive, framing the race as one of strength and victory versus weakness and defeat.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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