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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Kaus is just wrong in diagnosing McCain's "rather lose an election than a war" claim as bogus

Mickey Kaus is probably my favorite left-of-center-leaning blogger, but right now he's badly off his stride. After a ghastly reference last week to Trig Palin as a "prop" at the GOP convention, he now swings and misses with this observation (emphasis omitted, links in original) (h/t Instapundit):

McCain would like everyone to think his campaign imploded last summer because of his courageous support for the surge in Iraq:

I fought for the right strategy and more troops in Iraq, when it wasn't a popular thing to do. And when the pundits said my campaign was finished, I said I'd rather lose an election than see my country lose a war.

— McCain's acceptance speech, 9/4/08

This bit of history was repeated by the McCain campaign in at least one WaPo group interview I attended — suggesting it's an accepted talking point. It's also bogus. McCain's campaign imploded last summer because of his support for comprehensive" immigration reform, including legalization of existing illegals (semi-amnesty).

Mickey needs to read more carefully. He's right, of course, that McCain's position on immigration threatened his prospects in the GOP primaries. Kennedy-McCain sparked a major backlash among conservative pundits and a very vocal part of the GOP base. Many of them have not forgiven McCain for it still, and others are taking him at his word (that he's learned his lesson and will secure the borders first) with lingering skepticism.

But the passage Mr. Kaus quoted wasn't limited to, nor did it even mention, the GOP primaries. And McCain doesn't say "conservative pundits."

[Update: Be sure to see Mr. Kaus' gracious comments in response, re-printed below. — Beldar, Sun Sep 7 @ 4:55pm.]

That's the difference between a claim being bogus and a claim being exactly accurate. If the Surge had failed, John McCain's chances in the general election certainly would have been dead. Mainstream media pundits, most of whom were (and are) not conservatives, were indeed ridiculing McCain for supporting President Bush's plan to implement Gen. Petraeus' plans for the Surge. And it was in response to their ridicule that McCain said he'd rather lose an election (not "a primary election") than lose a war.

And yes, conservative pundits were ridiculing him on immigration at about the same time. Everyone, of all political stripes, except McCain and his most stalwart supporters, thought his campaign was dead, but not all of us had the same objections to what he was saying. Indeed, at that time, the liberal and even centrist pundits thought any Republican who didn't run hard away from Bush on Iraq had no chance in the general election; the conventional wisdom was that, as with the 2006 mid-terms, our impending defeat in Iraq meant the entire GOP was toast; the speculation was over which of the Republican candidates (besides Ron Paul) would break first and renounce Bush and the Iraq War in its entirety. And because McCain was arguing for the Surge even before Bush, they certainly thought McCain was not just toast, but cinders.

This much I agree with from Mickey's post:

McCain bucked the political/media CW on the "surge." He was right, it appears, and he should get lots of credit — though no more than President Bush, who doesn't seem to be getting any at all.

That's true, and all of us who are among the Dubya Loyalists have agreed to avoid pointing out that he was, ya know, actually the commander in chief who ordered the Surged troops into Iraq. And Mickey is also correct that increasingly, as the surge started working, that likewise served to help McCain's campaign, and just in time for the GOP primaries too (footnote omitted):

But McCain's surge position wasn't what (temporarily) sank his campaign — it was how he revived his presidential campaign after it had been derailed by immigration, the issue he'd now like to hide (and an issue where he embraced the political/media CW). McCain was running in the Republican primary, remember, which makes his behavior last summer not quite as courageous as he boasts it was. Same goes for his behavior now.

But McCain's comment about "losing an election" wasn't just, or even mainly, talking about losing in the GOP primaries. It's not like Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were taking an opposite position on the Surge, either. Obviously, any comment by McCain about what kind of risks he was taking by supporting the surge were directed to his standing among the general public, not the GOP faithful, and for the general election, not the primaries.

I'm not parsing or straining words here. I'm giving them their most straight-forward interpretation. Mickey's right about a lot of things. This time, he's just wrong. The fact that John McCain was defying his own party's pundits and base on one issue (on immigration) doesn't mean he wasn't also defying his opposing party's pundits and base (on the Surge)!

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UPDATE (Sun Sep 7 @ 4:55pm): I emailed Mr. Kaus with a link to this post, and he was kind enough to stop by and leave the following comment below, which I'll re-print here to ensure it's not missed:

I disagree. It wasn't just McCain's speech leaving the implication that when his campaign was considered "finished" in the summer of 2007. It was also a MCain campaign people who spoke to Newsweek. At least one was much more explicit on this--I think it was Lindsey Graham. Others were not on the record and i can't quote them, which is why my phrasing was a little vague. But they aren't talking about the general election. They're talking about the GOP primaries, and trying to rhetorically bury the reason, which was immigration. Cheers

And in a follow-up comment:

The interviews were at the Washington Post's work space, not Newsweek's. Same company, different division. They very kindly let Slate people (also owned by Wash Post) sit in. Sorry I got confused.

In reply to his response: Obviously I can't dispute what Mr. Kaus has been told off the record by his sources, and I have no quibble with his keeping their identities confidential. I'm not sure if something that was said to Newsweek ended up appearing in Newsweek.

But I respectfully continue to reject his criticism of McCain's statement in his acceptance speech, which — unlike these other conversations, at least so far as we know — was made to more than 40 million people on live TV and some millions more who saw replays or read transcriptions. In that, McCain didn't say anything about primaries. Indeed, it makes no sense for him to have been talking about primaries, for exactly the reasons Mickey pointed out (i.e., support of the surge didn't hurt him in any GOP primaries). Why impute to McCain a meaning (primaries) that is (a) not supported by the text, (b) makes no sense, and (c) would be a lie, when the other equally plausible interpretation (general election) suffers none of those problems?

Mickey may think he can read John McCain's mind, or that John McCain's secret intent must have been congruent with something someone else told him off the record at some other time. I find that unpersuasive. But in any event, whatever McCain might secretly have been thinking: As delivered, the quoted lines from McCain's acceptance speech were entirely truthful and accurate. On this, it appears that we will have to agree to disagree.

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UPDATE (Sun Sep 7 @ 6:45pm): Greyhawk takes a different and more methodically historical approach than I undertook, going back to contemporary sources. He concludes that, contrary to both Mr. Kaus' assumption and mine, McCain's "unswerving support for HIS TROOP SURGE (because he was far ahead of Bush on that one) cost him support from HIS base — the moderates in the Republican Party and independent voters, too." It's definitely worth a read as a defense of McCain's convention acceptance speech comment from a different angle than the primary/general election distinction I focused on.

Posted by Beldar at 11:32 AM in 2008 Election, Global War on Terror, Mainstream Media, McCain, Politics (2008) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Beto Ochoa made the following comment | Sep 7, 2008 12:43:08 PM | Permalink

There were very many pundits and analysts on the right who thought the surge would only result more casualties.
McCain believed in Petraeus's counter insurgency ideas when the majority in the administration and pentagon believed it was too esoteric and unworkable.

(2) Mickey Kaus made the following comment | Sep 7, 2008 4:03:52 PM | Permalink

I disagree. It wasn't just McCain's speech leaving the implication that when his campaign was considered "finished" in the summer of 2007. It was also a MCain campaign people who spoke to Newsweek. At least one was much more explicit on this--I think it was Lindsey Graham. Others were not on the record and i can't quote them, which is why my phrasing was a little vague. But they aren't talking about the general election. They're talking about the GOP primaries, and trying to rhetorically bury the reason, which was immigration. Cheers

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 7, 2008 4:18:58 PM | Permalink

Mr. Kaus, I'm honored to have you drop by, and will reprint your comment as an update to the main post to ensure it's not missed.

(4) Mickey Kaus made the following comment | Sep 7, 2008 4:44:00 PM | Permalink

The interviews were at the Washington Post's work space, not Newsweek's. Same company, different division. They very kindly let Slate people (also owned by Wash Post) sit in. Sorry I got confused.

(5) Greyhawk made the following comment | Sep 7, 2008 8:44:20 PM | Permalink

On one level McCain's comment is a simple and powerful campaign slogan, rendered more powerful because it is demonstrably true.

I take it to mean any election, primary or general. (Or dog catcher, as they say.) Folks can disagree with McCain's politics all they want, but he deserves credit for that, I'm not sure of any other recent examples of uncompromising positions (in the face of public opinion otherwise) on any issue from any politician.

As for the surge piece, it was ultimately Bush's call, and he does indeed deserve credit for that. I'm simply tired of hearing media spin regarding McCain "supporting Bush's surge" as another way to show McCain=Bush. The implication is that the surge was a bandwagon McCain jumped on, the reality is that McCain was calling for more troops in late '03/early '04 - before violence spun up post-Fallujah/Abu Ghraib - and he's never backed off from that.

Again, McCain can politic with the best of them (and does so on immigration) but he's about the only politician I trust on Iraq and Afghanistan - and on keeping us the hell out of other wars if at all possible.

(6) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Sep 8, 2008 1:30:48 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: I don't think Geo. W. deserves as much credit as McC. It WAS his decision to get moving on the surge. But what were his choices:

a) Things As They Were, bleeding from a thousand cuts, with no real prospects of improvement

b) Get The Hell Out Nownownownownow as Cowboy Harry and The One wanted. We can guess what that would have done.

c) the Surge.

What decision would you have made? You're a lame duck, your ratings are down the rathole already, and Petraeus had a solid rep. I don't doubt that making the decision was ferociously hard, and cost Geo. W. much sleep, at least metaphorically. But McC in 2006-7 was a man with a future. He could have chosen to keep quiet. Instead he backed his judgement (again, likely with considerable anxiety) blew the trumpet and charged. Bawling for the surge wouldn't hurt McC in the GOP primaries, however much the GOP establishment might have sniffed and thought him a wild man. But the bitter goes with the sweet: McC used the same style of reasoning, experience, intuition, and judgement on immigration, saying, the nation's capital should be in Mexico City, alienating the GOP base and blowing up his campaign. But he stuck. He deserves a profile in courage award, even while the rest of us say "My God!" about fifty percent of the time after his courage goes on display.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(7) Jim Treacher made the following comment | Sep 8, 2008 4:30:08 PM | Permalink

Now, could you explain the "prop" thing? Apparently they were supposed to leave him in the car, or hand him off to a Secret Service agent. And then they'd be accused of being ashamed of him, or whatever ludicrous motive these panicky jackasses want to come up with to try to destroy the greatest threat their hero's ever faced: a cute lady with glasses.

It was a really crappy thing to say and you should apologize. Unless you like beating up on little kids.

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