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Contentions

Parlor Game

Michael Crowley joins the favorite parlor game of pundits over the last week: try to figure out what Barack Obama is saying on Iraq. Crowley notes that, despite his current lingo, Obama never spoke about “stability” much during the Democratic primary, remarking:

If, however, Obama is now linking a U.S. troop presence to “stability,” that’s a very big deal. It’s also something I imagine must infuriate Hillary Clinton, who seemed to view things this way and was badly outflanked on her left as a result. I say the jury’s still out.

We’ll put aside for a moment things Clinton has a right to be infuriated about (e.g. abortion, NAFTA, and other flip-flops), but I do agree with the “jury’s still out” part. And maybe the jury will still be out for weeks or months to come as Obama wends his way along a path to finally embracing the surge, if that is indeed where he is going.

Abe, on the larger issue of Iraq in the campaign, I agree to a certain extent that John McCain may be a victim of his own success. By removing the specter of calamity in Iraq he makes voters more willing to gamble on an inexperienced commander-in-chief like Obama. However, there are two countervailing considerations.

First, if in fact the surge also amounts to a stunning victory against Al Qaeda that is big news and McCain, in Eisenhower-like fashion, can lay claim to a great national victory. That is a big “if,” but the prospect of a major advance in the war on terror which goes beyond Iraq is still, I think, a substantial feather in McCain’s cap.

But second, and more important, Iraq may mean more than just Iraq. McCain needs to explain why the candidates’ contrasting performances, judgment and, yes, character evidenced in dealing with Iraq are worth consideration beyond that one issue. Presidents, it is a truism, are selected as much for who their public character — tenacity, judgment, leadership, etc. — as for specific policy positions. (That is in part how McCain beat Mitt Romney in the primary.) And that is why the McCain camp sees a gift in Obama’s faltering, equivocating, and double-talking effort to shift positions on Iraq. It proves their point about presidential timbre and leadership.

Will it work? There are examples on both sides of the debate as to whether voters reward the candidate with superior public character. But it takes a sophisticated and adept campaign to sell that issue and, to quote Crowley, the “jury’s still out” on whether the McCain camp is up to the task.



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