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."
It doesn't serve Obama to be deferential to McCain on the surge issue. Obama is still on solid ground because Iraq was stable the day before we invaded. The surge (along with the so-called Sunni awakening) has calmed things down, but in the meantime, we have at least 4,173 dead, 30,662 wounded, and hundreds of billions (and counting) spent to get us back to where we started. "Fighting them over there, so we don't have to fight them over here" is no excuse when our own intelligence estimates indicate that al Qaeda established itself in Iraq after we were occupying it.
McCain will try to make the case that we've fostered an emerging democratic ally in the Arab world. But the now Shia-dominated Iraqi government has just as many reasons to ally with Iran as it does with the United States. And their alliance with us is far from ideological—it's held together with guns and cash. No one knows what happens when we draw down a significant number of troops.
In order to counterbalance McCain's consistent, but simplistic approach to Iraq, Obama has to drive home his best argument, that like President Bush and Vice President Cheney, McCain has not been called to account for the reasons why he supported the war in the first place.
Any prudent senator who had already opposed the war could not have reasonably been expected to endorse the idea of putting 20,000 more troops in harm's way based upon what had happened up to that point. But Obama should still point out that had he, fellow congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans not pressured Bush from mid-2003 until early 2007 to start withdrawing troops, there may never have been a surge.
It may come down to whose "I told you so" resonates more. One view suggests Obama should finesse the surge issue. But if McCain is able to articulate his message that success in Iraq was only a matter of time, then Obama will have a difficult time with foreign policy questions for the rest of the campaign. If Obama can remind voters that the war and its costs could have been avoided, then he can put McCain on the spot. When McCain challenges Obama on the surge and the future conduct of the Iraq war, Obama's response should be something like this.
"I was against the Iraq war six years ago because I believed then and now that the commander in chief should only ask our soldiers, sailors and Marines to fight and die if we know that war is necessary to defend against attack—not for oil, not to force others to adopt our way of life and not to avenge old grievances based on rhetoric and flimsy evidence. As president, I will continue to pursue our enemies in Afghanistan, if necessary, Pakistan and even Iran. But unlike my opponent in this race, I believe that the destruction and suffering caused by war should only be undertaken as a last resort. If I take America's daughters and sons to war, you will know it is because I have exhausted every other option at my disposal to try to prevent war."
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.