As I’ve said before, McCain deserves a large part of the credit for the surge–he pushed to have it implemented both in his public advocacy and his behind-the-scenes lobbying of the Bush administration, and he has been its foremost defender. Romney wasn’t as enthusiastic about it and in his body language, if nothing else seemed ready to distance himself from it if it failed. This is a perfectly legitimate issue for McCain to raise, and he has, by saying things like Romney was “looking at his shoes” while he was putting it all on the line for the surge.
But that doesn’t justify the rank dishonesty of his attack on Romney over the weekend. It’s so shamelessly unfair, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect of Bill Clinton attacking Barack Obama. Clearly, McCain wants to change the topic from the economy. And since he’s suffering from his “straight-talk” about his relative lack of knowledge of and interest in the economy, he’s trying to compensate with the opposite of straight talk–blatant distortions–about Romney’s record.
As Ramesh notes (citing Paul Mirengoff), McCain may feel entitled to this cheap shot given his own courage on the surge. He also might think that his press coverage is so adoring that he can get away with anything, and Romney is so firmly branded as a “flip-flopper” that any charge will stick. But I think something else is going on. McCain has always given the impression of reserving his true scorn for his enemies within his own party. I have a hard time imagining McCain making this kind of dishonest accusation against a Democrat–it would be uncivil and dishonorable. But making it against a fellow Republican running to his right? No problem. On top of this, there’s the personal animosity McCain feels toward Romney. Indeed, in one of those debates in New Hampshire, McCain spoke warmly of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the same time he was giving off waves of hatred toward Romney.
How will this play? If there’s one thing we know about late-breaking events in this primary season, it’s that it’s impossible to know how they’ll play. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it back-fires on McCain. The attack succeeded in the sense that it tipped the conversation back toward Iraq, but at a potential cost to McCain. His most important political asset is his political character, his reputation for truth-telling and honorable politics. This dishonest low-blow–if it continues to get attention in the closing hours–could chip away at that asset.