What worries Republicans: McCain's careless sound bites

As the presidential campaign shifts into general election mode, battle lines are easier to draw, the two camps are more clearly defined and it is easier to determine what events might upset -- or hearten -- one campaign or the other. This entry inaugurates a new series devoted to cataloging what keeps Republicans and Democrats up at night. Today's installment concerns the GOP and McCain's damaging sound bites: Before McCain can even hope to convince the country to not reject his imperialist designs, he needs to stop harming himself with careless statements.

Ever since he returned to the media spotlight in December 2007, John McCain has been accumulating sound bites that will undoubtedly harm his candidacy in the months ahead. The most famous clips are his "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" and his talking about staying in Iraq for 100 years. Today came a third statement. Asked on NPR when he thought troops could start coming home from Iraq, McCain responded that the question was "not that important."

McCain's argument is clear. He is against withdrawing from Iraq because of what he considers a risk of chaos and because leaving troops in the country to maintain a network of permanent bases is part of his design. Longterm presence has always been part of the imperialist design to which McCain has long been sympathetic -- and even more so in recent years as he has drifted closer to the neoconservative position. The "100 years" quote and now the "not that important" statement were both attempts to express this argument: Once Iraq is pacified, troops can stay in Iraq as long as we want them to and they will not be in harm's way. In fact, they will be proud of helping America keeps its influence and empire -- just as soldiers in South Korea face absolutely no risk to their safety. That is why McCain explained that what is important is the casualty level, not the troop level.

This is not an argument that McCain should expect to win easily even if he were to articulate it eloquently. Many believe that the moment has never been so ripe for Americans to repudiate grand imperialist plans and that voters are ready to reject such designs this year, and do so more explicitly than they could have in 2004 as John McCain represents a much purer version of empire-building than even George Bush did.

But the first challenge Republicans are facing is not even voters' increasing hostility towards empire-building. It's simply that McCain keeps messing up his delivery of the issue. Whatever the context, whatever his true meaning and however much Democrats might be distorting McCain's meaning when they imply that he wants the combat phase to last 100 years, the Republican nominee should never utter such statements. Just as the "100 years" quote, McCain declaring that the date of withdrawal is "not important" provides an incredible sound bite for Democrats to use.

There will be many voters who might perhaps support the idea of keeping bases in Iraq and who might perhaps understand what McCain means when he says that the important factor is the reduction of casualties (in other words, voters who are not shocked by the idea of empire-building) but who will be turned off McCain's candidacy when they hear about these two quotes and when they see ads running McCain's these two sound bites on Iraq. And that is enough for Republicans to lose sleep over McCain's tendency to rashly dismiss any talk of a timetable.

It is hard to call McCain's statements a gaffe since the Arizona Senator has not misspoken, nor has he said anything he did not mean to say. And it is only because the war has become so unpopular and the imperialist project has become such a liability that a controversy is arising from his statements. It is a testament to how politically difficult McCain's position is that he needs to express himself carefully and in as complex terms as possible to avoid giving Democrats any opening. Complicating things for McCain is his tendency to commit actual foreign policy gaffes, like his repeated confusion between Shiites and Sunni.

Demonstrating how much Democrats have grown since 2004 and how aware they are of the damage McCain is inflicting itself, the Obama campaign did not waste a second before entering full battle mode as soon as news of the NPR interview spread. Joe Biden, Harry Reid were hitting McCain within hours and the Obama campaign organized a conference call on which John Kerry unleashed harsh criticism (the mere fact that Obama is choosing to call upon Kerry as its national security surrogate is fascinating, of course).

In the era in which a You Tube clip can destroy a mighty frontrunner's candidacy, John McCain might not realize how damaging one sound bite can be, but you can bet many Republicans are losing sleep over it.

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