A Cat Without Whiskers
By MAUREEN DOWD
So some guy stands up after John McCain’s luncheon speech here yesterday to a group of business types and asks him a question.
“I’ve seen in the press where in your run for the presidency, you’ve been sucking up to the religious right,” the man said, adding: “I was just wondering how soon do you predict a Republican candidate for president will start sucking up to the old Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party?”
Mr. McCain listened with his eyes downcast, then looked the man in the eye, smiled and replied: “I’m probably going to get in trouble, but what’s wrong with sucking up to everybody?” It was a flash of the old McCain, and the audience laughed.
Certainly, the senator has tried to worm his way into the affections of W. and the religious right: the Discovery Institute, a group that tries to derail Darwinism and promote the teaching of Intelligent Design, helped present the lunch, dismaying liberal bloggers who have tracked Mr. McCain’s devolution on evolution.
A reporter asked the senator if his pandering on Roe v. Wade had made him “the darling and candidate of the ultra right wing?” ( In South Carolina earlier this week, he tried to get more evangelical street cred by advocating upending Roe v. Wade.) “I dispute that assertion,” he replied. “I believe that it was Dr. Dobson recently who said that he prayed that I would not receive the Republican nomination. I was just over at Starbucks this morning. ... I talk everywhere, and I try to reach out to everyone.”
But there’s one huge group that he’s not pandering to: Americans.
Most Americans are sick and tired of watching things go hideously backward in Iraq and Afghanistan, and want someone to show them the way out. Mr. McCain is stuck on the bridge of a sinking policy with W. and Dick Cheney, who showed again this week that there is no bottom to his lunacy. The senator supported a war that didn’t need to be fought and is a cheerleader for a surge that won’t work.
It has left Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, once the most spontaneous of campaigners, off balance. He’s like a cat without its whiskers. When the moderator broached the subject of Iraq after lunch, Mr. McCain grimaced, stuck out his tongue a little and said sarcastically, “Thanks.”
Defending his stance, he sounds like a Bill Gates robot prototype, repeating in a monotone: “I believe we’ve got a new strategy. ... It can succeed. I can’t guarantee success. But I do believe firmly that if we get out now we risk chaos and genocide in the region.”
He was asked about Britain’s decision to withdraw 1,600 troops from Iraq. “Tony Blair, the prime minister, has shown great political courage,” Mr. McCain said. “He has literally sacrificed his political career because of Iraq, my friends,” because he thought “it was the right thing to do.”
He said he worried that Iranian-backed Shiites were taking more and more control of southern Iraq. (That was probably because the Brits kept peace in southern Iraq all along by giving Iranian-backed Shiites more and more control.) And he noted that the British are sending more troops to Afghanistan, “which is very necessary because we’re going to have a very hot spring in Afghanistan.”
But then he got back to Tony Blair sacrificing his political career, and it was clear that he was also talking about himself. When a reporter later asked him if Iraq might consume his candidacy, he replied evenly: “Sure.”
I asked him if he got discouraged when he reads stories like the one in The Wall Street Journal yesterday about Ahmad Chalabi, the man who helped goad and trick the U.S. into war, who got “a position inside the Iraqi government that could help determine whether the Bush administration’s new push to secure Baghdad succeeds.”
Or the New York Times article yesterday about a couple of Iraqi policemen who joined American forces on searches in Baghdad, but then turned quisling, running ahead to warn residents to hide their weapons and other incriminating evidence.
He nodded. “I think one of the big question marks is how the Maliki government will step up to the plate,” he said.
And how, I asked him, can Dick Cheney tell ABC News that British troops getting out is “an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well,” while he says that Democrats who push to get America out would “validate the Al Qaeda strategy.” Isn’t that a nutty?
But Senator McCain was back on his robo-loop: “I can only express my gratitude for the enormous help that the British have given us.”
Sometimes I miss John McCain, even when I’m with him.