Politics & Policy

Dishonor on the Campaign Trail

A great American's not-so-great political attack.

Few people in Washington have been as adamant and clear on the stakes in Iraq as John McCain (Joe Lieberman would be another). I admire him for that. All Americans — especially those of us who are not carrying the burden of this war in the deep and personal way some others of us are — do. But the aspects of John McCain that I admire have been eclipsed, of late, by his less-than-honorable side.

Back in March, during a blogger conference call, McCain criticized other senators who use their service in Vietnam as a political club to bludgeon those who didn’t serve. He said that his own foreign-policy views — unlike those of, say, Senators Chuck Hagel and Jim Webb — are based on a lifetime of experience, and are not framed by events that took place 30 years ago (Hagel and Webb being examples of bludgeoners). McCain said that his own positions on national security do not always hearken back to Vietnam.

And yet, this month, his campaign ran again a commercial it produced last fall featuring a great line from one of the debates this season. He was criticizing Hillary Clinton’s vote for federal funding for a Woodstock museum, at which point he reminded everyone that he did not attend Woodstock — he was “tied up at the time.” As a debate line, it was riveting; but my first impression upon viewing it as a campaign commercial — one of a few now citing McCain’s combat valor and bravery as a prisoner of war — was that it verged on crass. I immediately flashed back to that straight talk about how Vietnam service shouldn’t be used as a political credential — straight talk that I had frequently cited as one of my reasons for admiring McCain. His is a great American story of bravery and resilience. But I can’t help thinking that it’s the rest of us who should be saying that of him — as indeed we (even other candidates!) are.

And then we need to go further, and follow the advice he gave us on that blogger call — by focusing on his entire record of service, beyond the valor he showed in Vietnam. Agree or disagree with him on a whole host of issues — some of them fundamental — he has a record of service that has dealt with most of the key questions we should be asking all of the presidential candidates: Iraq, Guantanamo, interrogation, immigration, campaign-finance reform, embryonic-stem-cell research . . .

That said, the McCain campaign’s use of the senator’s Vietnam service as a credential didn’t really bother me — who am I to criticize, after all? and he’s more than entitled to tell his story — until Saturday. On Saturday, the McCain campaign worked the news cycle well, but at the cost of straight talk.

On Saturday afternoon, the McCain campaign issued the following statement: “Mitt Romney’s position on the war in Iraq has been a study in flexibility. Like every other issue of importance in this race, Mitt Romney has changed his position. On April 3, 2007 he advocated secret timetables for withdrawal from Iraq. His exact words were ‘of course you have to work together to create timetables and milestones.’ In October 2007, Romney said that Hillary Clinton, who supports Iraq withdrawal, is ‘not going to be demanding a dramatically different course in Iraq than the Republican nominee will.’ These statements, along with Romney’s inability to stick with a consistent position, provide further evidence that he lacks the critical experience and judgment necessary to lead as commander in chief.”

It was a dishonest line of attack. During an April TV interview — as anyone who clicked on a link that was provided to me by the McCain campaign can see for themselves — Mitt Romney said that of course there have to be some agreed-upon benchmarks for progress (including, yes, timetables) between the U.S. and Iraq, at least privately. John McCain himself had been suggesting something even more official, but along the same lines, in January of the same year.

All Saturday, his accusation that Mitt Romney has been for a withdrawal timetable in Iraq was the Republican presidential news story, as everyone waited for South Carolina primary results for the Democrats. By the time folks from Mark Levin and myself on National Review Online’s “The Corner” to the New York Times and Time magazine’s political blog had concluded that McCain’s line of attack was baseless, the new story was Florida governor Charlie Crist’s endorsement of McCain. A winning Saturday for the McCain campaign, if they were aiming for Florida residents watching cable news on Saturday. The storyline continued into Sunday, as he repeated the charge on Meet the Press and the issue continued to be debated on NRO and elsewhere.

Since McCain himself was talking about benchmarks in January 2007, I was reminded of Jay Nordlinger’s dispatch from Davos around the same time last year. McCain was over there at the world economic forum, and Jay, who had been looking forward to McCain’s remarks, reported back disappointed: Save for arguing that America wasn’t indiscriminately slaughtering Iraqis, McCain fed into the anti-Bush criticisms that constitute the air that they breathe over there. He had a lackluster (or no) defense of the initiation of the war in Iraq. When asked about Gitmo he said, “Try ’em or release ’em.” He said that “even Eichmann got a trial,” which Jay called “one of the cheapest things I have ever heard out of a politician’s mouth.” It’s a reminder — like the McCain campaign’s dishonest line of attack this weekend — that as admirable McCain is as both a hero and a politician, he is not irreproachable even on national-security issues.

McCain is fond of saying he’d rather lose a political campaign than a war; he now seems to be swimming close to using the war to win a political campaign in the most dishonest of ways. It’s conduct unbecoming a man we all respect.

Whenever I’m worried I may be getting too critical of one of our Republican frontrunners, I tend to use Bill Bennett as a barometer. Bennett is a fan of all the primary/caucus winners with the exception of Huckabee (who’s piling on, too, in this dishonest attack on Romney). On CNN Saturday night, Bennett called on John McCain to apologize.

That would be honorable. John McCain and Mitt Romney are on the same side of this war. To pretend otherwise is wrong and is no honorable way to win.

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