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We have just witnessed a rare happening in the political galaxy when the stars and the moons — the facts and the politics — line up perfectly. So perfectly, that a politician who made a wrong prediction or assertion can take the high road and still come out better than ever.
Sen. Barack Obama had everything lined up just right on this matter of The Surge in Iraq and his timetable for getting out of Iraq.
But he blew it. Blew his chance to be seen boldly taking the high road, candidly telling it like it is, clearly aligning himself with all the right allies, and unmistakably demonstrating the sort of judgment and leadership we have long missed in our commander-in-chief.
In the end, Obama may still do all right in this campaign controversy that has become an even bigger campaign controversy. But that is only because his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, found a way to take what seemed like a win-win gift and react with the sort of mean-spirited distortion that all but accused Obama of being unpatriotic and even borderline treasonous. (We’ll get back to that.)
When Obama toured Afghanistan and Iraq (having been goaded into the trip by McCain’s repeated urgings that he go there), he traveled with a media entourage that included the American TV news superstar anchors from ABC, CBS and NBC. Predictably, these embedded anchors would be at pains to demonstrate that they were not in bed with the rock-star who’s very being had caused them to eject themselves from their cushy anchor-chairs and actually cover some news.
Predictably, they would all grill Obama on whether the surge had indeed worked. And whether he’d been wrong in opposing it from the get-go, and whether his timetable for a 16-month withdrawal of combat troops was wrong too, and so on.
Yet inexplicably, when the anchors and so many others asked those questions time and again, Obama looked hesitant, uncomfortable, almost at pains to make it seem that: (1) the surge had been good but not all that great; (2) the success of the surge brought him no great pleasure or relief; (3) it wasn’t all that relevant to his real message about getting out of Iraq. Wrong; wrong; wrong.
His interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric produced a campaign classic in what-not-to-do as a candidate. Time and again she pressed him to admit that the surge had succeeded. Time and again, he seemed to be nailing Jell-O to the wall — sometimes gazing down rather than directly at her as he spoke. At one point, frustrated and unsure, she asked: "I really don’t mean to belabor this, Senator, because I’m really, I’m trying to figure out your position. Do you think the level of security in Iraq would exist today without the surge?" He answered that this was all hypothetical.
Here’s what Obama could have replied the very first time he was asked if the surge had worked: "Yes — and thank God it did! The concerns and doubts that were raised by me, by present and former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other respected former generals — didn’t materialize due to two factors. First, the Sunni leaders severed their connections with al Qaeda in Iraq. Second, the Shiite militias mainly ceased their attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. That, plus the excellent leadership of Gen. David Petraeus, has paved the way for the troop withdrawals to begin this year to fulfill the new mission I will order as president: To end the U.S. combat role in Iraq within 16 months, as conditions on the ground permit.”
Obama did none of the above. But just when Obama had presented his opponent with a grand campaign gift, his opponent found a way to give much of it back.
McCain turned it into an attack on Obama’s patriotism — an attack that was both vicious and fallacious. McCain told a New Hampshire town meeting on July 22: "I had the courage and judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." McCain repeated the attack every chance he got in the days (see also: daze) that followed.
For decades, I have known John McCain to be a person proud of traveling the political high road. Yet that attack was the lowest and most scurrilous I have ever heard one presidential candidate utter about another. The McCain I have long known would have been the first to recant and repent.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)