The largest political story of the past year has not been the struggle for conservative self-definition, or the racially charged fight between Clintonistas and other Democrats, or the infinitely varied failures of the Democratic Congress. It has been the turnaround in Iraq.
President Bush's announcement of the surge in January 2007 pleased almost no one -- neither Democrats who embraced retreat at any cost, nor Republicans who suspected the shift in approach was too little, too late. To quote three Republican senators, Lamar Alexander argued that it was "not by itself . . . a strategy for success"; Sam Brownback said adding troops to Iraq was "not . . . the answer"; Susan Collins called it a "mistake." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to the Middle East to hold the hands of skittish congressional Republicans, whose defections on war funding could have meant the effective end of the Bush presidency.
By the summer of 2007, the Republican presidential candidate most closely identified with the war, John McCain, was in serious trouble. Moderates and independents no longer seemed impressed by the fierce, lonely advocate of what many called "escalation." Political observers argued that McCain's money troubles and staff resignations and firings -- he went from 120 campaign workers to 50 -- were "another nail in Mr. McCain's campaign coffin," showing that "the wheels came off," and leading to "a death spiral that is almost never survived."
If cliches could kill, McCain would have been embalmed and buried.
Yet the Republican candidate most closely identified with the war and the surge performs well in head-to-head polls against the Democrats. The revival of McCain's campaign was possible for one reason: the revival of American fortunes in Iraq. Most categories of violence in Iraq are now down by more than 60 percent, and sectarian attacks in Baghdad have fallen by 90 percent. Sunni tribal leaders are conducting the first large-scale revolt of Arabs against al-Qaeda thuggery -- which includes, we learned last week, strapping explosives to a mentally disabled woman and setting off a blast in a market.
McCain seems well suited to deal with this kind of evil -- precisely because he would diagnose it as evil.
This is a moment of rich political paradox. McCain's stubbornness on Iraq is transformed by the calendar into courage. The issue that was supposed to dominate the campaign and destroy the Republicans has helped to elevate a strong Republican candidate. And in spite of past bad blood between President Bush and McCain, it was Bush's decision on the surge that allowed McCain's remarkable comeback. If we ever see a President McCain, he will have President Bush to thank.
For all the talk about the influence of money and organization on politics, the McCain revival demonstrates that issues and political character still matter. McCain argued year after year, with Churchillian bullheadedness, that America needed a more aggressive and sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Occasionally, there are political rewards for simply being right.
McCain has other advantages as a candidate. The narrative arc of his "No Surrender" presidential campaign -- early challenge overcome by tenacity and confidence -- perfectly fits his own story. He is the Naval Academy rebel, the defiant prisoner, the wounded patriot, the stubborn legislator, the restless reformer. He cannot assume that Americans know any of this. One of his main tasks will be to inform them.
In the general election, his ideological heresies will suddenly transform into strengths. Because of his immigration views, he is the only Republican candidate who can make a serious appeal to Hispanic voters. His positions on global warming and campaign finance reform will ease his outreach to independents.
But McCain has at least one serious political drawback -- and it is not the "temperament issue." I have yet to hear a serious argument for the proposition that a short fuse should be disqualifying for high office. The peaceful are not always polite -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, "I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch" -- any more than the tightly coiled are always warlike.
But those who know McCain report a general lack of interest in domestic policy compared with his engagement in foreign affairs. "It's sometimes unfairly argued that Bush is intellectually uncurious," says one former member of Congress, "but on domestic issues that is really true of McCain."
McCain's foresight on Iraq has carried him far. But eventually he will need to engage Democrats on issues from health care to education to poverty. And being right on the war will not be enough.