The guru of the MSM awards another week to John McCain. (He’s won a few lately.) But there may be more than a week at stake.
Earlier this summer McCain had tried his best, and to some extent succeeded, in elevating the surge to a test of overall presidential fitness and judgment. His argument was two-fold: 1) Barack Obama blew it when he opposed the surge to begin with and 2) He blew it again, demonstrating poor character and stubbornness, bordering on close-mindedness, in opposing the surge even after it has succeeded beyond all expectation. McCain outpolls Obama by a wide margin on national security and the war on terror, and the surge has clearly contributed to this. But Iraq has limited saliency for many voters. They simply don’t want to hear any more and are yet to be convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Now we are in the midst of another round of public education about national security. The Russia-Georgia War may, as John suggested, be a game-changer. It reminds us yet again that the world is fraught with danger and that a President’s first reaction better be right. But it is not simply the elevation of national security or the sense that we need an experienced hand which has benefited McCain this week. It is that Obama stumbled out of the gate by failing to recognize the danger of Russian aggression and then essentially hid from view. His supporters bounced between isolationism and grudging respect for McCain’s prescient evaluation of Putin. By week’s end it was very easy to imagine McCain in the role of commander-in-chief and increasingly difficult to see how Obama would fill that role.
Hillary Clinton must be viewing these events with a mixture of bitterness and wistfulness. She was, among other things, the victim of poor timing. She had the right “3 a.m.” ad but no current crisis which could illustrate to Democratic primary voters just how unprepared her opponent was. (And it didn’t help that her own national security credentials were thin.) But events have caught up with the political race. We all can plainly see how the two general election candidates might operate when the crisis is theirs. It simply came too late to help Clinton in her race against Obama, who when spared from reacting to an immediate international crisis, floated effortlessly above the fray.
The Georgian crisis did something else helpful to McCain’s cause: it separated him from the Bush administration. McCain can rightly claim that his assessment of Russian ambitions was more accurate than that of President Bush. Moreover, it appears that the Bush Administration has taken days to catch up to the McCain rhetoric and even some of his recommended actions (e.g. threatening Russia’s G-8 status). It is always a good thing for McCain, both with the conservative base and with independents, when he can explain that his election will not mean a continuation of the Bush administration.
Finally, we know that Obama is universally credited as the more eloquent and rhetorically polished of the two candidates. But McCain hit his stride this week in defending an ally, the cause of democracy and the country’s vital interests. In a finely crafted op-ed in the Wall Street Journal he wrote: “This small democracy, far away from our shores, is an inspiration to all those who cherish our deepest ideals. As I told President Saakashvili on the day the cease-fire was declared, today we are all Georgians.” By contrast, Obama’s mushy appeals to unity and world citizenship served up in Berlin seem absurdly naive and entirely lacking in substance by comparison. McCain had something important to say and said it well.
All this may fade, of course, as time goes on. But it is equally possible that the number of international stand-offs and confrontations will actually increase between now and Election Day. McCain wants voters to think hard about the world and everything that could go wrong in the years ahead. “Who’s the right guy at the helm?” is what he wants voters to contemplate. We’ll see in November if this was the week which answered that question.