McCain’s Double Feature
By GAIL COLLINS
Is there a less rewarding political task in America today than carrying the president’s water on Iraq? But there was poor John McCain yesterday in the Senate, slogging all through the night and into the morning, beating back the Democrats’ attempt to impose some kind of timetable.
“I cannot be certain that, even if I could convince Americans to give General Petraeus the time he needs to determine whether we can prevail, that we would prevail in Iraq,” he said. This is what amounts to his sales pitch, when followed by a promise that the awfulness that will transpire if we leave would be even worse than the awfulness that we created when we arrived.
Lately, the senator has been dividing his time between the American mission in Iraq and his presidential campaign, and they are going equally well. The campaign has pretty much retreated to New Hampshire, where a small group of volunteers and a rapidly shrinking staff are trying to live out one of those old movies where everything falls apart and then Andy and the gang decide to just put on a show in the barn.
“We will do lots of town hall meetings as we have in the past,” he assured the Concord Chamber of Commerce last week. It was for the most part a subdued event, at which McCain talked for a long time about Iraq while the crowd ate their Asian pasta and sandwiches in respectful silence.
“It’s not like a rally speech. Let’s face it, it’s pretty serious stuff,” said Michael Dennehy, whose title, this week, is senior national adviser to the campaign.
Yesterday in Washington, the McCain movie was the one where the old soldier is stuck with a feckless commander who messes everything up and then orders his men to take the hill anyway. “The verdict of the people will arrive long before history’s. The public’s judgment of me I will know soon enough,” the senator from Arizona said with an interesting mixture of passion and gloom.
This is not the worst possible outcome for John McCain. His presidential campaign is falling apart and everyone is debating whether it’s due to his principled stand on Iraq or his principled stand on immigration. But the alternate plotline was the one in which the stalwart maverick senator sells out to everybody from the irrational religious right to the irresponsible tax-cut crowd, and then loses the nomination anyway.
McCain campaigns have a history of misjudging the public. His advisers firmly believed his heroism as a prisoner of war would win him piles of votes. While that sounds perfectly rational, the fact is that with the exception of a few generals who actually ran a war, voters haven’t awarded points for military valor since we stopped having Whigs.
They also thought voters wanted a president who had the gumption to stick to his convictions. We like to imagine that’s true, but in fact we only love politicians who stick to our convictions. There’s actually nothing we hate more than a leader who insists on doing something we don’t like and tells us it’s a matter of principle. We’ve got one of those now, and look how well things are turning out.
During yesterday’s debate, a 6 a.m. traffic jam around the microphone forced some of the other presidential candidates to content themselves with submitting remarks for the record. Hillary Clinton, however, managed to get 20 minutes at 4:15 a.m. It was a measured recitation of Bush failures, the virtues of the Democratic proposal and the impossibility of knowing what would happen in Iraq if we left.
The most notable thing, really, was her staying power. When you consider that Mrs. Clinton may well be the most famous woman in the world, it’s amazing how much punishment she’s willing to undertake.
Last weekend she voted in the Senate, then flew to New Hampshire and did six events around the state before dark, not including massive doses of handshaking and interview-giving. She looked absolutely exhausted backstage; you’d think she’d have bailed out somewhere around the third “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead” rally. But no, there she was.
If success really is 90 percent about showing up, she is the next president of the United States. But the constant complaint about Mrs. Clinton is that she never takes an unpopular principled stand.
And now you know why.