In the Arena

Talking Heads

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I watched John McCain and Chuck Hagel on Stephanopoulos, then switched to John Edwards on Meet the Press. Some observations:

1. McCain, whether you agree with him or not, has been entirely consistent about the war. I disagreed with him about going to war in 2003, agreed with him about the need for more troops until last summer, when it became plain that we had no reliable ally in Iraq, and I disagree with him now. We’re well past the point where a minimal, exhausted U.S. military force can bring stability, by itself, to Iraq. I admire McCain’s honorable willingness to take this unpopular position into the 2008 election…which makes it even more disappointing when the Senator slides into political calculation, as he does when he challenges those who oppose the escalation to cut off funding for the war.
Let’s be entirely clear about this: the coming non-binding vote on the Bush policy is a perfectly appropriate exercise in democracy. It is not a slap at the troops. It is a slap at a President whose decision to go to war was intemperate and ill-considered and whose prosecution of the war has been scandalous.

2. Hagel–was sort of tongue-tied, in part because his position doesn’t have the simple-minded clarity of surge (or get-out-now, for that matter). His, and John Warner’s, position is implicitly this: let’s stay out of the civil war, but try to keep Iraq coherent. Admirable, but difficult to describe in its particulars–especially since it depends on a major regional diplomatic initiative that will be impossible for the Bush Administration to mount because (a) such an initiative will demand a public acknowledgement by the President that he was wrong to go to war without the same sort of international coalition as his father did and (b) demand that the President make a humble request for ideas about how to proceed from our European allies and Iraq’s neighbors and (c) demand a belief in patient, granular diplomatic engagement that this administration hasn’t shown so far.

3. Edwards–quite good, I thought. No baloney. Didn’t lose his cool when Russert pushed him–for way too long, I thought–on his pro-war vote. He was also quite good on the difference between his position and McCain’s: Edwards believes security won’t come without a political deal, which won’t come without diplomatic pressure on the Maliki government. McCain believes securing Baghdad is the predicate for a political deal. They’re both right–but McCain’s, and Bush’s, lack of emphasis on the diplomatic front makes their arguments weaker. (Ask any military officer, including David Petraeus, and you’ll be told that there is no possible military solution to this war without a political settlement amongst the ethnic factions.)
Two quibbles: I thought Edwards’ emphasis on the role of President Ahmadinejad in Iran was overblown–the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, has always had the whip hand; Ahmadinejad has the exact same constitutional power as his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, which is to say not much.
I’m also not sure I like the sound of Edwards’ universal health care plan. Expanding Medicaid and putting more responsibility on the employers is exactly the wrong way to go. I know i’m a broken record on this, but Ron Wyden’s universal plan would (a) bring Medicaid recipients–that is, the poor–into the same health care system as the rest of us and (b) relieve employers of the increasingly difficult burden of providing health insurance for their workers. But I’ll reserve judgment until I see the details.