To Surge, With Love

The 'success' of the surge is the only talking point McCain has left. Obama needs to squelch it tonight.

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When Sen. John McCain shows up in Mississippi tonight, after two solid weeks of Wall Street bailout headlines, he and Sen. Barack Obama will square off in the most anticipated presidential debate in almost 50 years. McCain still believes that foreign policy is his home turf, so at some point this evening, we should expect to hear a version of the following from McCain.

"My friends, I want to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan fashion to give Senator Obama one last chance to admit that the surge was an unqualified success, that he was wrong, that I was right, and that if he wasn't so busy analyzing everything, he might have figured out that the American people want less thinking and more ass kicking."

It's the last non-canard, non-gadget play that McCain has left. Which candidate "wins" the debate and sets the tone for the last five weeks of the election could turn on how Obama responds. But he can't get caught up in his own governance-friendly but campaign-unfriendly compound-sentence structure. Obama has to figure out how to remind voters that the surge, while arguably successful, was made necessary by the failures of the Bush administration's war policy, and by the support of McCain and other backers of the administration who took the focus off of fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in favor of fighting a more-easily demagogued but far more costly war in Iraq.

Ultimately, Obama is the Democratic nominee because he publicly opposed the war from the beginning. Obama's critics argue that it was easy for him, as a state senator representing a liberal district, to take an anti-war position. But if he was right, he was right whether or not his position was consistent with that of his constituents. Obama's challenge is to underscore this point without appearing to be chagrined.

McCain will cast himself as the "maverick." (Doesn't referring to yourself as a maverick immediately disqualify you as a maverick?) He was for the surge before the surge was cool, but conveniently overlooks the fact that the Iraq war turned out not to be as it was originally advertised—cheap oil, low troop casualties, bouquets from grateful Iraqis—and that the surge was the only way to rescue a highly dubious policy that he not only favored, but helped pitch to the American public. Expect McCain to continue to take credit for fixing something that he helped break—like a used-car dealer who acts like he's doing you a favor by repairing your engine a few weeks after he sold you a lemon.

Seventeen days before the congressional vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, McCain told Larry King that "Saddam Hussein, by his development of weapons of mass destruction, does pose a clear and present danger." But this prediction has not been borne out. Two years later on Meet the Press, McCain said, "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months," but acknowledged that his position a year earlier to simply "stay the course" was "proven not to be correct."