In the week since Sen. John McCain’s high-profile speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, movement activists and icons have debated the merits of the man who has charted the most unusual path to the GOP nomination in recent history. While most candidates appeal to their bases in the primary, and then tack to the center for the general election, McCain has succeeded largely on his strength with independents and moderates and now must garner enthusiastic conservative backing to win in November.
Though the Arizona Republican undeniably faces an uphill battle, capturing the conservative base is not unthinkable. But to do so, promoting fear of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be insufficient. He must provide an exciting rationale for conservatives to rally behind him — and he laid the foundations for it last week at CPAC.
With the cross-currents of conservative disaffection, a bitter feud on the Democratic side, and a possible economic slowdown on the horizon, the next nine months promise plenty of chaos for McCain. But one far less chaotic area — Iraq — could pave his path to victory.
In interviews with over 100 conservatives at CPAC last week, few argued that McCain was good enough by simply not being Obama or Clinton. McCain clearly needs to contrast himself with his eventual opponent, but it needs to be in the context of why conservatives would relish his Presidency, not merely tolerate it.
McCain tried to fire up conservatives by highlighting areas of agreement, from constitutionalist judges to permanently extending the Bush tax cuts he originally opposed. But even the most compelling laundry list is not enough. Conservatives don’t trust McCain — a far more difficult barrier to hurdle.
This is where Iraq could be McCain’s secret weapon.
Part of what enabled McCain to attract enough conservatives to advance this far toward the nomination was his repeated pledge to see the war through to victory. Conventional wisdom, though, is that now he must turn his focus elsewhere, as the war won’t be a winning issue outside the GOP primary.
Yet framing the race around Iraq through the spring and summer might be McCain’s best shot at a November victory. No matter who wins the Democratic contest, McCain’s general-election opponent will have pledged a pullout from Iraq within months of taking office. While such a commitment was politically popular a year ago, it now creates substantial vulnerability for Obama or Clinton.
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.