As a onetime prisoner of war during Vietnam and decorated Navy officer, Sen. John McCain has based much of his political persona on his staunch support for the military and his consummate credibility on national security.
But as the Arizona Republican prepares to mount a White House campaign, he is putting those military bona fides on the line -- aggressively backing an unpopular plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at a time that other presidential hopefuls are steering clear of the war or calling for troop reductions.
President Bush is expected this week to announce a plan to send at least 20,000 additional troops to try to halt sectarian violence and bring security to Baghdad -- a move widely perceived as an all-but-final push to avert failure in Iraq.
Besides Bush, no politician has more to lose than McCain, the presumed GOP front-runner in 2008 and the plan’s biggest backer in Congress.
Now that Bush is pursuing the McCain approach, the senator could soon find himself defending the policy to a war-weary public in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key election states where surveys show voters are fed up with rising U.S. casualties.
McCain readily admits that the new strategy is likely to result in even more violence -- setting up a paradox for him as he strives to succeed an unpopular fellow Republican in the White House by backing an escalation of the very war that has plunged Bush’s approval rating to near-record lows.
Democrats can barely contain their eagerness for McCain to take the blame for a plan that seems to contradict the antiwar message of the 2006 midterm election that stripped Republicans of their once-solid congressional majorities. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, went out of his way recently to describe the troop increase as the “McCain doctrine.”
McCain shows no interest in shedding that label.
“If it destroys any ambitions I may have, I’m willing to pay that price gladly,” McCain said Friday after an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, where he said the surge “must be substantial and it must be sustained.”
His presidential aspirations, he added, “pale in comparison to what I think is most important to our nation’s security.”
McCain’s calculation is the latest sign that the Iraq war is likely to dominate the 2008 race, just as it overshadowed the elections of 2004 and 2006. But it also shows that McCain, perhaps the best-positioned of any candidate to win the presidency in wartime, is willing to bet it all on a gamble that voters will reward his resolve, as they did for Bush in 2004, rather than punish him, as they did to GOP candidates in November.
Other Republicans are clearly not ready to play those odds.
One of McCain’s top rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has so far declined to weigh in. In interviews with conservative magazines and bloggers before his term in the statehouse ran out last week, his response was only “I’m still a governor” when asked about increasing troops. He added that he wanted to hear what Bush had to say before making any additional statements.
Another potential McCain primary opponent, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), has walked a careful line, saying that a troop buildup “could be an acceptable plan” but adding that an increase “seems shortsighted if its only purpose is to impose military order without also moving toward a political equilibrium.”
Foes across the aisle
Democrats, encouraged by the 2006 midterm results and still smarting from a 2004 campaign in which many believe they were too passive on national security, appear to be staking out a strong stance against troop buildups.
The party’s leaders in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, laid out their opposition in a letter to Bush last week, and Pelosi warned Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that any administration budget request for additional troops would receive “the harshest scrutiny.”
Meanwhile, Edwards and another possible White House contender, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), are talking about troop reductions or redeployments.
Edwards has called his 2002 vote in favor of the war a mistake -- an admission that his supporters believe will help him appeal to the party’s antiwar base. He took the offensive in a recent television interview, pinning the idea of adding troops squarely on McCain, rather than Bush.
“He’s been the most prominent spokesperson for this for some time,” Edwards said Dec. 31 on ABC’s “This Week.” “I’m just telling you it’s his thing, and I know John McCain very well. He and I are friends, but I think he’s dead wrong about this.”
The matter is thornier for the Democrats’ presumed front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. She has staked out a moderate tone on the war, reserving criticism for the Bush administration’s leadership while consulting military experts such as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the prime backers of a major troop increase.
Asked during an appearance last month on NBC’s “Today” show about the potential troop buildup, Clinton expressed skepticism but left herself room to change direction. “I am not in favor of doing that unless it’s part of a larger plan,” she said.
But if Bush does announce a troop escalation, no candidate will face tougher questions than McCain, who has advocated such a move since late 2003. The first primary and caucus votes will be cast in January 2008, which would be about a year into a troop buildup that experts predict will result in a sharp rise in deadly combat. If McCain won the nomination, voters could face a stark choice while watching violence unfold. McCain appeared to recognize that on Friday as he addressed the packed American Enterprise Institute conference room.
“I want to be clear, and I mean this with all sincerity: [This] strategy will mean more casualties and extra hardships for our brave fighting men and women, and the violence may get worse before it gets better,” he said. “We have to be prepared for this.”
Still, McCain is clearly ready to take his message to the voters. In a preview of how he plans to answer critics should additional troops fail to defeat the Iraqi insurgents, he was careful to add that the administration had dug itself into a hole with its post-invasion strategy -- an argument that, in effect, blames Bush for not taking McCain’s earlier advice.
“Even if we send additional troops to Iraq in large numbers for a sustained period, there is no guarantee for success in Iraq,” he said.
“We have made many, many mistakes since 2003, and these will not be easily reversed.”
McCain aides say they have devised no particular strategy for shielding their boss from the political fallout if a troop buildup does not work. In a sense, they said, the senator’s stance might serve to remind voters of the kind of straight talk that boosted McCain’s popularity in 2000, when he defeated Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
“It doesn’t mean that lots of us who work for him and respect him so much don’t worry about things like this,” said McCain’s longtime chief of staff, Mark Salter. “I’m sure we do. But there’s no game plan for it. There’s been no fretting and no meetings.”
The case for war support
McCain appeared Friday with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who lost his party’s primary last year partly because of his support for the war but then won reelection as an independent.
Lieberman, the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee, heaped praise on McCain and the plan to add troops, all but endorsing his Republican colleague’s presidential candidacy. The two traveled recently to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lieberman has repeatedly lauded McCain for his “gutsy” stance.
“I’ve just finished an election campaign. If rumors are correct, he may be starting one soon,” Lieberman said, gesturing to McCain, seated nearby. “And he’s not taking the easy way out here.”
For McCain, Lieberman’s presence provided a useful illustration. As the two senators spoke Friday with reporters, McCain pointed to Lieberman as a case study proving that the 2006 elections did not, contrary to widespread opinion, mean that supporting the war was a recipe for defeat.
“There’s no way this guy could have been reelected if it was as simple as that,” McCain said.