Anti-War Voters Trust McCain to Make Decisions About 'War on Terror'

We don't know who will carry the Democrats' banner onto the political battlefield this fall. But we do know the kind of attack the Dems will face. The McCain campaign has little in its arsenal beyond two words: "No Surrender" -- no surrender anywhere, but especially in Iraq. Its strategy is merely to hurl that phrase over and over again, in every form imaginable.

Can it work, with public opinion still so firmly against the war? Frank Rich, a liberal stalwart of the New York Times op-ed page, doubts it. He claims that "the mere mention of Iraq is dangerous to Mr. McCain. … It will be a slam-dunk for Democrats to argue that it's long past time for the Iraqis to stand up on a sensible timetable that will allow the Americans to stand down."

But when the issue is war and peace, Democrats should be as wary as George Tenet about predicting a "slam dunk." Frank Rich, like so many others, assumes that voters who are against the war will choose the candidate who is against the war. Ah, if only our fellow citizens were indeed so logical, how much easier it would be to forecast elections -- and what a different nation this would be.

In fact, the polling numbers from late February and early March already show a less logical, more disturbing trend. A clear majority still think the war was a mistake. But when the question is which candidate will do best handling the war, McCain wins every time. In an LA Times/Bloomberg (LAT/B) poll, it's no contest. He outpolls Clinton on the question 51-35 and outpolls Obama 47-34. A Washington Post/ABC (WP/ABC) poll pitted McCain only against Obama. Though the result was closer, McCain still won 48-43. Yet 63% in that poll said the war was not worth fighting.

In a New York Times/CBS News (NYT/CBS) poll, 58% said the U.S. should never have attacked Iraq. Yet again McCain gets the highest score on "making the right decisions on Iraq"; 58% are confident about McCain (27% "very" confident), 57% about Obama (only 20% "very" confident), and 50% about Clinton. Among the crucial independent voters, McCain gets 62% confidence, while Obama gets only 54% and Clinton 51%. Though 83% of Democrats say the war was wrong, a whopping 42% are confident McCain will make the right decisions on the war, while 21% of Democrats have no confidence in Obama and the same number no confidence in Clinton.

How to explain these surprising numbers? Part of the explanation lies in the changing view of the war. Over the last year, the number who say the war is going well jumped from 30% to 48% in the LAT/B poll. The NYT/CBS poll records a similar jump since last June, from 22% to 43%. In the WP/ABC poll, the number who see "significant progress" jumped from 31% to 43% in just the last three months. That increase tracks very closely with the growing political fortunes of McCain, who was all but counted out last summer.

Yet in nearly every poll a majority do not expect this progress to produce success for the U.S. 54% say things are still going badly, in the NYT/CBS poll. And when Pew asked, "Should we bring the troops home as soon as possible?" more said yes than no (though just barely, 49-47). So, while the growing perception that "the surge is working" helps McCain, it's hard to credit that alone for the voter's trust in him.

Another key to McCain's success is his view that Iraq is just one front, though the most vital, in a global war on terrorism. On that global front, voters clearly see him as their most trustworthy defender.

When the LAT/B poll asked, "Who would be best at protecting the country from terrorism?", McCain bested Clinton by the wide margin of 54-27 and Obama by the even wider margin of 58-21. In the Pew poll, 43% said Obama would not be tough enough on foreign policy and national security issues. 37% had the same concern about Clinton, but a mere 16% about McCain. Independents showed the same pattern on the issue as the overall electorate.

Remember the "crisis phone call, 3 AM" commercial that the Clinton campaign used so successfully? Rasmussen Reports was smart enough to ask voters whom they'd rather have answering that phone: Clinton, Obama, or . . . McCain. The two Democrats got only 25% each, while McCain was way ahead with 42%.

These numbers point to the most important factor of all. Most McCain-trusters are not telling the pollsters what they think about competing policies. How many of them really know anything about the various candidates' policies on global terrorism? They hear questions about "crisis," "protecting," and "toughness" as questions about the candidates' character: Who can I really trust? Who will stand firm when the going gets rough? Which one will take care of America in an emergency? Which one has guts?

Those are precisely the questions McCain plans to make central in this year's election. (Take a look at this video from the McCain campaign, where he morphs into Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt.) If he can get even a slim majority to care more about character than rational analysis of policies, he may very well be on the way to the White House.

For a lot of voters, the character question translates (consciously or unconsciously) into: Which candidate will stand up and act like a real man? So it's not surprising that, in the Rasmussen "crisis" poll, McCain did much better among men (51% McCain, 21% Obama, 19% Clinton). But even among women, McCain's 33% narrowly edged out the Democrats, who got 30% each.

If character is the central issue, McCain's often-discussed age can be a big plus too. When the Pew pollsters said "McCain" and asked respondents to say the first word that came to mind, by far the most (55) said "Old." But look at the runners-up: "Honest" (32); "Experienced" (29); "Patriot" (21). If you are looking at an honest experienced patriot, "old" might very well mean wise, mature, settled, dependable. When a world crisis erupts, who would you rather have answering that phone: a stable, battle-tested veteran who has been through it all, or a young kid who is just coming under fire for the first time?

Of course that's one of the questions Hillary Clinton's campaign is bringing to the fore. "Since we now know Sen. McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that," she said recently, at a press conference surrounded by a gaggle of retired military officers. Apparently Clinton's strategists don't agree with Paul Krugman, who wrote recently that a focus on the economy "could well give Democrats a huge advantage" -- especially Hillary, because "the shift in electoral focus from Iraq to economic anxiety clearly plays to Mrs. Clinton's strengths."

Krugman assumes that the economy can be the Dems' winning card because it "has overtaken Iraq as the public's biggest concern." But the polls don't give that clear message at all. In the LAT/B poll, 40% say the economy is their number one issue. But add together the 31% who say Iraq and the 15% who say "protecting the country," and the economy takes second place. In the NYT/CBS poll, Iraq, war, and terror add up to 25%, just slightly behind the economy's 29%.

Perhaps Hillary's people think they can play on this ambiguity to have it both ways: focus on national security during the primary season to secure the nomination, then switch the spotlight to the economy in the fall campaign. But if the current polling trends continue, they are taking a huge risk. McCain's "No Surrender" mantra is already scoring more points than Democrats expected. They seem ill-prepared to cope with the power of those two words. If Clinton forces Obama to focus the current contest on the war and security, the Dems are playing right into McCain's only strength.

Some pundits argue that the Democratic candidate have no choice. McCain's campaign against "cut-and-run" surrender -- which boils down to a charge of Democratic cowardice and treason -- is so powerful that his opponent will have to confront it head on and end up making it the central campaign issue. In other words, the Republicans have already found a way to control the terms of the fall debate.

If that's true, the current poll numbers send a warning sign. A lot of voters who oppose the war will be logically consistent and vote for the candidate who wears the label "anti-war" -- but perhaps not enough to give that candidate a victory. The voters who decide the outcome may be those who oppose the war yet choose McCain, because they feel that his superior character makes him best suited to deal with the war.

That drives rational progressives nuts, but their rage and despair won't change the outcome. What could change the outcome is a strategy that faces up to the irrational facts. That might mean starting right now to shift the focus from war to economy. It might mean reframing the war as an economic issue, and finding some other symbolic vehicle for the battle over "character" issues. It might mean whatever other approach the Democratic strategists can invent.

The essential point is to recognize that McCain's only hope is to turn the war from a policy issue into a character issue. Right now, he seems to be doing surprisingly well.

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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