A narrative is beginning to form among the top-tier of presidential candidates of both parties. This narrative is not ideological in scope or definition. We are seeing two pools of candidates form: Authentic ones whose positions on key issues are fixed, perhaps even to the point of damaging their electoral potential and synthetic ones whose “evolving” positions on key issues seem specifically designed to improve these candidates’ chances at the polls.
Today I would like to look at two candidates’—one authentic, the other synthetic—views on the war in Iraq.
Sen. John McCain (my client) is nothing if not authentic on matters of national security and defense. McCain supported sending more troops into Iraq long before President George W. Bush came to see it as a necessary move. His position on Iraq has been praised even by those conservatives who are highly critical of him on other policy matters.
And yet, McCain’s position is not a popular one with the public at-large. Americans are remarkably sour on the Iraq War. In a mid-February AP-Ipsos poll, 56% of respondents said the Iraq War is a “hopeless cause,” as opposed to 39% who said it is a “worthy cause.” In the same poll, only 32% agreed that sending more troops to Iraq would stabilize the situation there.
As I have said to a number of my conservative friends, if McCain seeks only accolades from the mainstream press corps, as they often claim (McCain himself even once joked about the press being his “base”), surely he would have flip-flopped here and turned against this war, no?
Of course, there is precedent for flip-flopping on the war, but it comes from the other side of the partisan aisle. Both Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina have evolved in their thinking on this important subject. Both Clinton and Edwards voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002.
Edwards’s reversal on Iraq has been clean and precise. He has either completely altered his thinking on this issue or he has made a calculated reversal to placate his party’s anti-war base. Either way, he made a clean break from his vote and now says, “I was wrong” for having voted to authorize the invasion, usually to loud applause from anti-war, Democratic crowds.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has opted for a slow lurch to the anti-war position that lacks the cathartic relief of Edwards’s reversal. Slowly, over the course of several months, Clinton has 1) been unapologetic in defense of her pro-war stance; 2) criticized President Bush for dismissing out-of-hand suggestions for early troop withdrawal; 3) rejected both a “rigid timetable the terrorists can exploit and an open timetable that has no ending attached to it”; 4) taken “responsibility” for her vote while at the same time criticizing the president for “misusing” the authority she granted him; 5) claimed President Bush “misled” the Congress about what he would do with this authority; and 6) recently introduced a measure in the Senate to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 90 days.
In short, her position on Iraq is very, shall we say, Clintonian.
There is no reason to believe Clinton’s tortured posturing on Iraq is damaging her electoral standing, however. Her aggregate lead over Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), her chief opposition in the Democratic primary at this point, is 18.2%, according to Real Clear Politics.
What is more, the two national public figures most associated with authentic, unyielding support for the war—President Bush and Sen. John McCain—are suffering at the polls. Almost 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s job performance. And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has opened up a significant lead over Sen. McCain in recent weeks (though it should be noted, Mayor Giuliani is no slouch on the subject of national defense and the War in Iraq).
This evidence suggests Sen. Clinton’s inauthentic posturing on the war is the right thing to do, politically speaking. And yet, the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows McCain beating Clinton in a theoretical, though entirely plausible, head-to-head match-up in the General Election. How can this be?
Well, issues matter. But elections are about choices. In my experience, intangibles such as reliability, likeability and especially authenticity play significant roles in swaying the hearts and minds of voters, though they are difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify. This is one reason why some conservatives are giving Mayor Giuliani who, along with McCain is another shamelessly authentic candidate, a good, hard look in the Republican primary. Indeed, it is probably why President Bush won a second term over his challenger Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). In difficult times and when faced with difficult choices, as we Americans undoubtedly are abroad, the courage of conviction trumps the pusillanimity of evolution every time.