Matt Lauer was in the middle of paying John McCain a tremendous compliment last Wednesday when the Republican nominee interrupted him.
"You showed enormous political courage when you backed President Bush's surge policy in Iraq at a time when--"
"May I correct that statement?"
"I advocated the surge policy before President Bush."
"Early on," prompted Lauer.
"Early on. You actually called for more troops way before the president."
"Yes, yes, and said the past strategy was going to fail."
This was more than McCain being boastful. His advisers believe it's a distinction that will help determine whether McCain wins or loses in November.
McCain was an early and forceful advocate of a policy that has helped turn around the Iraq war. The fact that McCain led on Iraq and did not simply support the president is one of the central rationales of his candidacy. It was his commander-in-chief moment. McCain emphasized this throughout the Republican primaries, when he scored his opponents (particularly Mitt Romney) for being insufficiently supportive of the surge, and it helped him win.
Now things get more complicated. The contrast between McCain and Barack Obama is greater than it was with any of his primary opponents, which, paradoxically, makes McCain's task more difficult. The broader electorate is much more skeptical about Iraq than those who voted in Republican primaries. A majority believes the war was a mistake, and most want to get troops home soon, if not immediately.
This is McCain's dilemma: What do you do when your best issue is one on which most voters have a different view?
"He's going to do what he's consistently done," says Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain. "He's going to talk straight to the voters who are frustrated and angry that the war was mismanaged for many years and cost the country a great deal in blood and treasure."
"Senator McCain's prescription to correct a failed policy was right. Senator Obama's was wrong," Schmidt continues. "They're not deliberating abstractions. This was a real event that shows whose judgment was right and whose judgment was wrong."
In other words, criticize Bush and criticize Obama. To some extent, the debate about Iraq is not a debate about Iraq. It's about leadership, wisdom, and judgment.
"Iraq," says Schmidt, "is a character issue."
The Obama campaign thinks so, too, and last week they seized on another part of McCain's interview on The Today Show to suggest, rather audaciously, that McCain is indifferent to the concerns of American troops and their families. Matt Lauer asked McCain whether the success of the surge means that U.S. troops might be returning earlier than expected. "If it's working, Senator, do you now have a better estimate of when American forces can come home from Iraq?"
McCain responded: "No, but that's not too important. What's important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea. Americans are in Japan. American troops are in Germany. That's all fine."
Within hours, Senator John Kerry opened an Obama campaign conference call with a sharp attack, accusing McCain of a lack of compassion for those serving during wartime. "It is unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs and concerns of Americans, particularly the families of the troops who are over there," he lectured in a tone that was a mix of mock outrage and feigned disappointment.
Convincing voters that a man who spent five years as a POW in Vietnam is indifferent to the hardships of those serving during a war is going to be difficult. Understanding this, Kerry and the other advisers quickly shifted their criticism, casting McCain as "confused" about the situation in Iraq. (Between Kerry and Susan Rice, Obama advisers used that word nearly a dozen times to describe McCain, in attacks some believe were meant to call attention to his age.)
Kerry said: "It is really becoming more crystal clear to a lot of us that John McCain simply doesn't understand it. He confuses who Iran is training. He confuses what the make-up of what al Qaeda is. He confuses the history going back to 682 of what has happened between Sunni and Shia and how deep that current runs."
But this, too, is a risky line of attack for Obama, whose campaign staff often discuss Iraq in a manner that suggests they are utterly unaware of the changes that have taken place there over the last 18 months. Last week, on the same conference call, Obama military adviser Richard Danzig, a well-spoken former secretary of the Navy, spoke of "increasing sectarian violence" in Iraq. And Obama's website makes claims about the surge that are both misleading and false. Judging by the "Iraq" section of the site, Obama seems to believe that Iraq is still in the midst of a "civil war," a talking point even the most ardent war critics have dropped, and that the reductions in violence "do not get us below the unsustainable levels of violence of mid-2006." They do.
All of which brought this response from McCain adviser Mark Salter. "It's sort of comical for Barack Obama and his foreign policy team to falsely accuse John McCain of confusion when they all seem to be suffering under some kind of mass delusion."
One fact emerges from all of this carrying on: Iraq will remain a major issue through the fall.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.