When you need a second press conference and your opponent sends out your press avail performance as oppo material you know its been a bad day. Thursday was just such a day for the Obama camp. The only saving grace for Barack Obama: his clumsy and hesittant lurch to revise his Iraq policy came the day before a three-day holiday weekend. But events of the day were and certainly will continue to be fodder for those who contend that Obama is floundering on the issue which has been key to his appeal: Iraq.
The networks were harsh in their assessment, and rightly so. Obama tried in the course of a single day to argue he was refining or reassessing his Iraq policy but to also insist nothing was changed. Is he altering course or sticking to his plan to withdraw a brigade or two a month no matter what? Still not clear, but his defensive insistence that he is not “searching for maneuvering room” seemed to give away exactly what was afoot.
But that is his key dilemma: if he changes policy he is revealed to have flip-flopped and admitted error on an issue of war and peace (and his candidacy’s guiding focus), but if he adheres to his view that the surge changed nothing and all is lost he has revealed himself to be out of touch with reality. It’s quite a fix. Not surprisingly the newly revamped McCain team was gleeful, contending that Obama had reversed course on the “central premise” of his campaign and declaring:
Now that Barack Obama has changed course and proven his past positions to be just empty words, we would like to congratulate him for accepting John McCain’s principled stand on this critical national security issue. If he had visited Iraq sooner or actually had a one-on-one meeting with General Petraeus, he would have changed his position long ago.
This is indeed the first real test of the Schmidt regime. It is up to the McCain team to explain why all this matters. For starters, if we assume Obama is in fact going to revise and reverse course, the McCain camp will no doubt argue: 1) Obama made the wrong strategic decision on the surge; 2) He stuck with that decision long after available evidence indicated he was wrong; 3) He waged a primary fight based on that failed strategy and continued it through his nomination, likely after he recognized he would have to revise that policy (i.e. he lied to Democratic primary voters); 4) He refused to avail himself of reliable information either from commanders or independent experts that would have helped him revise his views earlier; 5) He is changing policy — and then won’t admit to changing his policy — for pure political gain (i.e. to avoid embarrassing himself in the general election); and 6) His craven political maneuvering leaves entirely uncertain what his future Iraq plans will entail, how forceful he will be in executing them and whether they too will be thrown overboard if political winds shift.
But beyond explaining all this, the McCain team must link this to the overarching issues of leadership, credibility and determination. Iraq is not the top issue for voters so if the McCain camp is to use this effectively, Schmidt and company must explain why Obama’s abysmal conduct on Iraq — where American lives are at stake — has importance beyond the specific issue of Iraq. Is this the type of political leader Obama promised to be and is Obama the person to make decisions on vexing issues (both foreign and domestic) over the next four years? Or put in the positive light, does this prove McCain is the superior leader with superior judgment?
Finally, however craven and however transparent Obama’s shift may be his efforts to get out from under his untenable withdrawal position are the ultimate proof of the wisdom of the surge strategy and of those who championed it against all political odds. And if by force of events and political expediency the Democrats must embrace the surge we can at least be grateful that after eighteen months we finally will have bipartisan agreement on Iraq. The latter is a very good thing — provided it is genuine and not simply political artifice.