John McCain, the GOP Nominee? Bring Him On!

According to the latest Washington Post poll, there's been a dramatic shift towards John McCain following his victory in the Florida GOP primary, and he now leads Mitt Romney by 24 points nationwide. With a number of winner-take all primaries on the Republican side, he has a very good shot at wrapping up the nomination on February 5. It looks like conservatives -- with a few raving-mad, mouth-breathing exceptions -- have gone through denial, anger, bargaining and depression and come finally to accept their insubordinate nominee. Modern conservatives are the philosophical heirs of the monarchists of a previous era; despite months of grumbling, most will, ultimately, rally around the king come November.

McCain is also the candidate most Democrats and progressives have feared facing in the general election. According to RealClearPolitics' rolling average of head-to-head polls, McCain would beat Clinton today by a slim margin of just under 2 percent and would edge out Obama by a razor-thin half-point. Eight months out -- and months before the first debate between the nominees -- these data mean little, but they are causing some concern on the left.

McCain is, however, an extremely weak candidate. The senator's been showing his age throughout the primaries, and there is still a long and exhausting slog ahead. His wooden delivery of stump speeches -- sometimes offered while staring at his notes -- and some incidents in which he's appeared "confused" -- he referred to Vladimir Putin as the president of Germany -- are vulnerabilities for a 71 year-old candidate. Most people still haven't had a chance to see and hear from these candidates at length this cycle, and while we all decry the fact that people often make political decisions based on the candidates' mannerisms or appearances rather than on the issues, in a race against a cranky, old-looking and somewhat out-of-it McCain, the War of Appearances is likely to be won handily by either of the potential Dem nominees.

The affable and avuncular image McCain's worked so hard to cultivate may also be difficult to maintain as voters focus more attention on the candidate. As Sidney Blumenthal wrote for Salon:

McCain's political colleagues … know another side of the action hero -- a volatile man with a hair-trigger temper, who shouted at Sen. Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor to "shut up," called his fellow Republican senators "shithead," "fucking jerk," "asshole," and joked in 1998 at a Republican fundraiser about the teenage daughter of President Clinton, "Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father." [In 2006], McCain suddenly rushed up to a friend of mine, a prominent Washington attorney, at a social event, and threatened to beat him up because he represented a client McCain happened to dislike, and then, just as suddenly, profusely and tearfully apologized.
And McCain's problems run far deeper than his irascibility and some gaffes on the stump. His real challenge is that his popularity -- his viability -- rests almost entirely on two narratives that have absolutely no connection with reality: his reputation as a straight-talking "maverick" and a moderate, and his "brave" support for Bush's troop escalation, a policy that's led to the widely-embraced but wholly false idea that "the surge is working."

These narratives have only gone unchallenged thanks to a compliant press; the commercial media are McCain's most dedicated constituents, and he's spent a career fostering that country-before-party image, even while walking in lock-step with Republicans on all but a few over-reported issues.

This means that Democrats are not so much running against McCain, the candidate, as McCain, the myth. The Republican Party will be a serious obstacle for the Democratic nominee, but ultimately election 2008 will be as much a battle to overturn the conventional wisdom as it will be a fight with the senator from Arizona. It should be a source of some encouragement then that the progressive movement, with its blogs, social-networking space and alternative media outlets, is far better prepared to fight and win that kind of battle than it has been at any other time in recent memory.

The Twists and Turns of the "Straight-Talk Express"

McCain's strongest selling point was summed up well by Matt Welch in the L.A. Times last week. "It's no mystery why independents gravitate toward McCain," he wrote. "He's a country-first, party-second kind of guy who speaks bluntly and delights in poking fellow Republicans in the eye on issues such as campaign finance reform and global warming."

The reality is that John McCain is the antithesis of the principled straight-talker. When he was asked in a recent debate whether, as president, he would sign into law the comprehensive immigration reform bill that he's championed for the past three years, he responded: "No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today." Yes, the situation today is that he's running for the Republican nomination.

As journalist and blogger Steve Benen noted, that's only one of a number of measures that McCain has worked hard to pass and is now saying he'd oppose:

  • McCain used to champion the Law of the Sea convention, even volunteering to testify on the treaty's behalf before a Senate committee. Now, if the treaty comes to the Senate floor, he's vowed to vote against it.

  • McCain was a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants' kids who graduate from high school. In 2007, to make the far-right base happy, he voted against the bill he had taken the lead on.

  • In 2006, McCain sponsored legislation to require grassroots lobbying coalitions to reveal their financial donors. In 2007, after receiving "feedback" on the proposal, McCain told far-right activist groups that he now opposes the measure he'd backed.

  • McCain used to support major campaign-finance reform measures that bore his name. In June 2006, McCain announced his opposition to a major McCain-Feingold provision.

As Benen points out, it's one thing to change one's mind about a piece of legislation, "but these aren't just random bills that McCain voted on -- these are bills that he personally championed -- recently."

That's long been the trend with McCain, who claims that he's spent decades "fighting for the unborn" when stumping in socially conservative states, but has at least tacitly defended Roe V. Wade in the past. He voted against the temporary Bush tax cuts -- saying at the time that the nation has never cut taxes "in a time of war" -- but is now pledging to make them permanent as a central promise of his campaign.

But, ironically, of all the issues that McCain has embraced over the years, it's been his take on the occupation of Iraq that has possibly been the least consistent -- he's "flip-flopped" on various aspects of Bush's Iraq policy dozens of times. The only consistency in his record is that each and every prediction of what would come to pass in Iraq has been proven consistently and terribly wrong.

The Realities of Occupation

McCain has said "that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 'a thousand years' or 'a million years,' as far as he was concerned," and based much of his pitch for the White House on the fact that he backed the troop "surge" despite the fact that it was highly unpopular at the time.

The problem for McCain is that he's betting his career that the situation in Iraq is as likely to remain as it is or improve as it is to decline. That assumption's problematic, and if the decline in violence proves temporary between now and November, it will only expose the failure of the symbolic troop escalation on which McCain's hung so much of his campaign.

The "surge is working" narrative's not reality-based, and when it comes to Iraq, we've seen the spin give way to the ugly facts time and time again.

That the troop escalation has been anything but a success is not an ideological claim, as supporters of the occupation charge, but numerical and chronological. The surge began last February, and there was something approaching a consensus at the time that the addition of about 20,000 combat troops -- the rest were support personnel -- would be a drop in the bucket in a country of 25 million people. Retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey said at the time: "I personally think the surge of five U.S. Army brigades and a few Marine battalions dribbled out over five months is a fool's errand." But the troop build-up continued in March, April and May.

The period that followed was a bloodbath -- last June and July were the most violent summer months of any year of the occupation. August was one of the bloodiest months, period. Then, that month, the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army to stand down. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths fell by about 50 percent the next month and decreased again in October and November. The militia is estimated to be 100,000 strong and is arguably the most powerful ground force in Iraq after the U.S. military. While the change can't be wholly ascribed to any single factor -- the violence has also decreased as a result of communities that have been fully "cleansed" of one or another ethnic or sectarian group -- it's clear that al-Sadr's order, not Bush's "surge," was responsible for most of whatever "success" there may have been.

Finally, there is the masterpiece of propaganda known as the "Sunni Awakening." Spun as a sign of success, the reality is that the U.S. military turned over some of the areas where they'd encountered the most violent resistance to local Sunni authorities -- many of whom they had condemned as "terrorists" previously -- and started paying their fighters to stop shooting at U.S. troops. In other words, the U.S. was defeated and surrendered territory to the "enemy," effectively paying reparations to local populations and suffering fewer casualties as a result. There are many ways to define success, but defeat and surrender are not among them. Yet, in perfectly Orwellian fashion, after four years of saying that Iraq was mostly stable aside from a few local areas and the Sunni "Triangle of Death," the administration simply stopped using the phrase and replaced it with talk of a "Sunni Awakening." We've always been at war with Eurasia.

The stated goal of the escalation was to "provide space" for political progress that might lead to a lasting and sustainable peace. But there's been no move towards political consensus on any of the Iraqi political class's most divisive issues, not has there been any reconciliation of ethnic and sectarian tensions in the streets.

Dissatisfaction with the Iraqi leadership will continue to increase. Tensions in the South between Shia nationalists and separatists have been on a straight upward line since the Brits pulled back. A growing rift has developed between the national army and U.S.-backed Sunni militias. Mosul has become the latest city to catch fire. The referendum for the future of Kirkuk has been delayed because the question of the oil-rich city's future is too explosive.

Every day, the stress on Moqtada al-Sadr's ceasefire, which is scheduled to expire this month, continues; it's unlikely that it will hold through November. There have already been a number of instances in which Mehdi Army units have gone freelance; if the ceasefire holds, that number will no doubt increase.

Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government are at odds over oil contracts. The country's infrastructure is still in tatters, and there are 4 million displaced Iraqis. If the 2 million or so who are refugees in other countries return, nobody knows what to do with them and inadequate food supplies will be further strained. If they try to return to neighborhoods that have been successfully "cleansed," a new wave of violence will likely ensue. A terrible drought is decimating Iraqi agriculture. Public health officials say that while the cholera epidemic that swept the country last year is under control now, they expect it to return with a vengeance as the temperature rises this summer. I could go on -- Iraq is a disaster of epic proportions, and no amount of spin can conceal that reality indefinitely.

Remember that the troop escalation is scheduled to end in July, three months before Americans go to the polls. At that point, even a docile media is going to have to either report that violence -- and the all-important U.S. casualty rate -- is on the rise again, or they'll be forced to examine the escalation's success or failure in terms of political progress as well as the level of violence. Either storyline shifts the debate significantly (as would a cancellation of the long-planned summer draw-down).

The Politics of Occupation

Unfortunately, even in the midst of a heated election campaign, the Democratic candidates have so far deprived voters of a fair and open debate about one of the most important issues of our time. Both Clinton and Obama have been coy -- dishonest, really -- about their plans for Iraq, claiming, for example, that they will remove "combat troops" but retain some "non-combat" troops for training, counter-terrorism missions and to protect, in Clinton's words "the more than 100,000 Americans civilians who are there, working for the embassy, working for businesses, working for charities."

It's a tragic reflection of our political culture that they can get away with these vagaries on an issue of such great concern to their constituents. The dirty truth is that "non-combat troops" are troops with orders to stay in their bases when the shit hits the fan unless said shit involves our contractors and infrastructure. It's profoundly immoral given the propaganda laid out for staying in-country; it effectively continues the occupation but abandons even the pretense of protecting vulnerable Iraqi civilians.

Both candidates have refused to put a hard number on the amount of "non-combat" troops that would be required for their missions, forcing us to essentially read the tealeaves to glean what they would actually do if elected. Both have proposed missions similar to that laid out in the Center for American Progress' "Strategic Redeployment 2.0" plan (PDF), which calls for about 50,000 troops to fulfill. According to an analysis by historian Stephen Zunes, "most estimates of the numbers of troops needed to carry out [the mission Clinton has described] range between 40,000 and 75,000." NPR reported that senior advisors to Obama have privately said that he would likely retain 50,000 troops in-country. These are exactly the same number of troops that George Bush has tried to lock in by signing a "cooperation agreement" with the Iraqi government his military installed.

This is a grim reality for the "anti-this-war" movement, but it's important to understand that it is the perception that matters, and with an abundance of low-information voters, a candidate who says he or she wants to end the "war" will have a distinct advantage over John "1 Million Years Is Fine By Me" McCain, regardless of his or her sincerity. According to the Jan. 18-22 L.A. Times-Bloomberg Poll (PDF), 66 percent of independents agree with close to 90 percent of Democrats that the U.S. should withdrawal from Iraq within a year.


According to the Washington Post poll cited above, a slim plurality of Democratic primary voters believe Clinton has a better shot at defeating McCain than does Obama, although her lead on that poll question has eroded in recent weeks. A good argument can be made that Clinton, whose team has more experience pushing back against the GOP smear machine than any other, is tougher than Obama, and therefore has a better chance. Clinton's backers also have the highest intensity of support among any of the top three candidates.

Obama's strengths, however, play perfectly against McCain's narratives. His "post-partisan" rhetoric is appealing to a whole generation of new voters -- young people have come out for him in droves in the early primaries -- and he has done extremely well with self-identified independents, the same group that's delivering the nomination to McCain (so far, he's tended to split the partisan GOP vote with Romney and won with the indies).

On Iraq, Obama has the advantage of having opposed the invasion from the beginning, which means that he'd have significantly less difficulty drawing a contrast on the issue with McCain than Clinton, who will have to explain why she voted for the war before she "opposed" it.

Finally, Clinton has the highest "negatives" -- disapproval rating -- of any candidate in the race. Modern American elections are won in large part by turning out "your guys" and keeping your opponents' supporters at home. McCain, despite the grudging acceptance of many Republicans in recent weeks, still has the softest support of any of the three candidates -- fewer than one in four of those voters who back him tell pollsters that they "support him strongly." So, while there would be a lot of people who would want to take part in history and elect the first woman to the Oval Office, there are also going to be voters who don't support McCain, and might stay on their couches against an Obama (whose negatives are very low), but who would be motivated to get to the polls to vote against Clinton. So while most on the right will hold their noses and vote for McCain, it's likely that others -- some anti-immigrant hardliners, some Christianists -- will simply stay home against Obama whereas they may be motivated to beat "Hitlery." That doesn't need to be a very large number in those swing states to make the difference.

Beating McCain

Whoever becomes the eventual Democratic nominee will enjoy a structural advantage over McCain. The Democratic candidates are "crushing" their GOP rivals in terms of fund-raising, there have been record turn-outs in primary after primary on the Democratic side, and there's clearly a burning desire among partisan Dems and many progressives to take out the Republican trash after 8 long years of war and Bushenomics.

All that will mean little, however, if the race is against McCain, the man, as opposed to the media myths he's created. Ultimately, this will be a test of the communication infrastructure progressives have labored to build over the past ten years; we have 8 months to chip away at the twin towers of McCain's candidacy -- his ostensible independent streak and the success of the Bush "surge" that he championed.

That means it's time for some message discipline. McCain is not a "straight-shooter," he's a "Bush Republican" who will say anything to get elected. He has a different message for every crowd. He's a flip-flopper on all the issues that he supposedly bucked his party over in the past.

Branding the troop escalation the "McCain doctrine" -- as John Edwards has done -- ties him to a policy that has a very good chance of going south, visibly and undeniably, before the end of summer.

Moreover, the 'surge is working' narrative itself has to be challenged, forcefully, before Election Day. As blogger Chris Bowers argued recently:
The simple truth is that, starting with the explosion of blogosphere traffic during the invasion of Iraq and with the rise of Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2003, over the past five years, the rising and declining fortunes of the contemporary manifestation of the progressive movement have been inextricably tied to winning and losing the Iraq debate nationwide. Right now, because we are losing that debate, we are losing pretty much every other fight, too.
As Joe Brewer and Scott Parkinson of the Rockridge Institute suggest, the key to that is reframing the debate from the question of whether the escalation of troops has had an effect, to a simple story of betrayal. America was betrayed by leaders -- like John McCain --who led it into a destructive imperial war and who continue to spin a web of lies and half-truths to maintain the occupation.

The popular "straight-talking" McCain? Bring him on. We have eight months to chip away at a leviathan of spin.

AlterNet is a non profit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.


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