5.30.2008

GE news: McCain commits gaffe and reacts angrily, and an abortion referendum in CO

John McCain is getting in a habit of committing unforced errors on the issue he is supposed to have the most control in -- the Iraq war and national security. After the 100 year statement (whatever the context, it was an obvious political mistake) and the repeated confusion between Shiite and Sunni, McCain is drawing fire for a statement he made on Thursday to a panel of journalists (video here):

In comments to reporters on Thursday, McCain asserted that "I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet and it's long and it's hard and it's tough and there will be setbacks.

Unfortunately for McCain, the troops have not been drawn down to pre-surge levels, as there are 155,000 troops now deployed in Iraq versus 130,000 before the surge. The Washington Post notes that the day in which McCain made these comments was very deadly in Mosul, drawing attention to that part of McCain's statement as well.

Predictably in this era of war rooms and quick attacks, the Obama campaign wasted no time to blast away, sending out John Kerry to criticize McCain's statement. That alone is a significant development, as it means Democrats no longer fear Kerry has been made radioactive by the 2004 campaign. But what is more puzzling is the reaction of the McCain campaign. The Senator's statement was at best an imprecision and at worst a mistake, but instead of acknowledging it to try and move on, the campaign has chosen to attack the Obama campaign right back and prolong the debate over McCain's original statement. His spokesperson said today, "Talk about a political stunt, it's sending out campaign surrogates to parse words about a topic Barack Obama has no experience with."

The reason this seems like a puzzling response to me is that McCain's statement was clearly wrong and there is nothing the campaign can gain by arguing over it. McCain's error was factual, not something that is up to normative or ideological debate, it is strange that the campaign chose to not simply recognize its mistake. It feels like the campaign's response was impulsive and rash rather than thought-out calmly, as all decisions should be. This, of course, is something that is often associated with McCain's temperament and something he should be careful to guard himself against, particularly on the issue of the war on which the number of imprecise statements that McCain is making is starting to mount.

Sure, it is hard to believe that McCain actually meant that combat in Iraq would last 100 years and even that he actually believed that the troop level had already been drawn down, but he should realize that soundbites are often all that matter in modern campaigns and that he has absolutely no room to maneuver around his support for the Iraq War given how unpopular the war is.

In the careful exercise McCain needs to accomplish to balance his general election chances with his support for the war, the Arizona Senator is doing himself no favors. And his angry response is allowing Obama to continue to press the subject, this time including McCain's dismissive retort in his own criticism:

Anyone running for Commander-in-Chief should know better. As the saying goes, you're entitled to your own view, but not your own facts.... And today, Senator McCain refused to correct his mistake. Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake. His campaign said it amounts to "nitpicking." Well I don't think tens of thousands of American troops amounts to nitpicking.

In another development that will influence the general election, a Colorado constitutional amendment seeking to define a fertilized human egg as a person made its way to the November ballot yesterday, as the supporters' petition was certified with more than 100,000 valid signatures. This could be all social conservatives need to be energized about coming to the polls on Election Day in one of the most important battleground states of the fall campaign.

Republicans are worried that evangelical turnout will be depressed this year in a context of declining enthusiasm among all segments of the GOP base. In that context, news like this one are clearly welcome -- and so is the possibility that an anti-gay marriage amendment would be on the California ballot. However, it is important to not overstate the impact these amendments might have. Despite a lot of talk of 2004 anti-gay amendments helping Bush win re-election, this is not a universally accepted thesis -- and that was in the case of very high-profile amendments in a year in which gay marriage was a very heated topic of conversation. Furthermore, McCain is not comfortable talking about issues like abortion, as is exemplified by the fact that he barely touched upon it in the GOP primaries despite the fact that his record was clearly pro-life (unlike Romney's and Giuliani's). This means that the McCain campaign will be less shrewd than the Bush campaign was in using opportunities like the Colorado referendum.

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