Today’s news that the unemployment rate rose by 10 percent (from 5 to 5.5 percent), with oil’s climb continuing and no bottom in sight, together with the continuing foreclosure of homes across the country, all suggest John McCain’s path to victory is even more treacherous than it might appear. And so the irony presents itself: With a troubled economy and Democrats ahead on issue after issue, McCain will only reach the presidency in two ways. First, Barack Obama is going to have to do something from now until election day that seriously calls his judgment into question — and I mean something new, not a Jeremiah Wright offshoot. Second, there is Iraq. McCain is going to have no choice but to center his campaign around victory in Iraq — by claiming that the turnaround during the surge has not just created fragile gains but that we are on the verge of actually winning outright in Iraq and that the victory is due almost entirely to him. (Whether that’s true or not is another matter.) That Obama was wrong about the surge, is wrong about where we are now and just how meaningful it will be to secure a victory there, and that these mistakes on Obama’s part raise serious questions about his ability to handle the growing threat from Iran.
It may seem counterintuitive that McCain needs to use an unpopular war to get himself elected, but the way things look right now, nothing else is going to get him elected. Yes, he needs to spell out a reform agenda. Yes, he needs to have answers, and fluid ones, on domestic policy matters. But all that is purely defensive, to ensure that Obama’s advantage on matters like those does not grow. In the end, McCain has to make it an election about leadership. And where he has shown leadership is Iraq. Oddly enough, this won’t be easy for him. McCain doesn’t like to talk all that positively about any subject; it’s not his way. He’s a skeptic and a naysayer, kind of a gadfly. But gadflies don’t become president, especially not in this atmosphere. He is going to have to be a cheerleader and a braggart. It’s a tough call, but Lord knows, he’s been through worse.