Port St. Lucie, Fla. – On Saturday, at a seafood restaurant across the state from this Atlantic coastal town, John McCain performed the first part of a political bait-and-switch.
An enthusiastic crowd of oldsters, nearly all Florida voters and many of them war veterans, packed Capt’n Fishbones at the Shell Factory and Nature Center in North Fort Myers. Hundreds of supporters overflowed from the restaurant’s eight-foot sliding windows, out onto the parking lot on one side and the mini-golf course on the other. Those farthest from the scene could see nothing and hear little, but they stayed all the same.
The audience applauded McCain when he mentioned the name of Sen. Joe Lieberman, his biggest Democratic supporter. They applauded him when he mentioned his commitment to the pro-life movement. They even applauded him when he mentioned his guest-worker program.
But more important, it was here that McCain made his first reference to Romney’s support for “withdrawal timetables” in Iraq. Minutes later, on my drive back across Florida to the Atlantic coast, the remark was already being dissected unfavorably on Fox News and CNN (I listened on XM Radio). McCain’s remarks had been quite deliberate — he said largely the same thing at his next stop in Sun City, to the north: “[Romney] said that he wanted a timetable for withdrawal — that would have meant disaster.”
This is what Romney actually said in April 2007 when asked whether there should be “a timetable for withdrawing” the troops:
[T]he president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement. You don’t want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone. You want to have a series of things you want to see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police, and the leadership of the Iraqi government.
McCain spoke as though Romney had taken the Democrats’ position — favoring a quick end to U.S. involvement in Iraq, regardless of conditions on the ground. But as the original quote demonstrates, this was misleading. McCain had set the bait in the seafood shop. This got everyone’s attention. On Meet the Press the following day, he clarified his criticism of Romney and made “the switch”:
Governor Romney obviously said there had to be, “timetables,” although they had to be secret because we weren’t going to tell the enemy when we were leaving. I mean, that’s — that’s just a fact. And if we’d have done that, as the Democrats and some Republicans wanted to do, we would’ve lost that surge and al-Qaeda would be celebrating a victory over the United States of America.
This criticism, unlike the earlier one, rang true — even if McCain had to lie first in order to highlight it. Now Romney’s “fault” was not the idea of a timetable per se — a loaded term used by the Democrats — but his embrace of a position before the successful troop surge that would have precluded it from ever taking place.
Romney has always been cautious about the Iraq war — many hawks would say it is to a fault. He has said he supported the war at the time, knowing what he knew in 2003. He says he supports it now because we cannot abandon the mission we began. But, unlike most of his Republican rivals, Romney has never explicitly embraced the idea that it was the right thing to do in retrospect, knowing what we know now — that is, that he would do it again if given the choice. He awkwardly avoided the direct question in a debate in June, calling it a “null set” (he meant to say “moot point”). He answered the same question with a slight redirect in Thursday’s Florida debate, stating simply that he supported the war then and still does now — nothing about whether it was the right thing to do, given what we know now.
In the April 3, 2007, interview that McCain was citing, Romney had said that he wanted the United States to make demands of the Iraqi government, instead of simply watching them bicker and bungle while more American soldiers lost their lives. In that context, a private timeline made sense as a solution.
McCain had a different solution to the same problem: He wanted to heighten American involvement through the “surge” and improve the security situation first. Both were legitimate courses of action. McCain’s was the one ultimately adopted — and it worked. McCain has every right to crow about it now. But that’s not enough. His campaign would like to portray Romney as a fair-weather fan of the Iraq war because Romney’s plan would have precluded the surge.
McCain’s unfair stab at Romney this weekend may not cost him anything. The endorsement from Florida’s popular governor, Charles Crist, came at just the right time to bury the item in the local news. And if he does win the nomination, this moment may not even be remembered. Unfortunately, the truth is always too complicated for a quick explanation.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.