McCain’s Real Problem

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Before today’s staff massacre, a frequent complaint one heard from the McCain campaign in recent months was that the national press had turned against them, that the coverage of their guy had become hostile, unfair and unbalanced. Putting aside the irony of that charge (in 2000 McCain and his aides used to say, only half in jest, that “the press is our base”), there was at least some truth underlying it. The tone of McCain’s press did change — but not because he made peace with Jerry Falwell or voted in favor of extending tax cuts that he’d previously voted against or because of any of the other midsize transgressions cited in all the stories documenting McCain’s rough transition from insurgent candidate to establishment frontrunner. The coverage changed, I think, almost entirely because of Iraq.

The campaign thought the Senator’s stand on Iraq would be an asset in his bid for the GOP nomination. It would reassure conservatives by showing McCain to be President Bush’s closest ally on the most important issue of the day, and it would demonstrate yet again that McCain was a politician of high principle, willing to take a stand for what he believed to be right in the face of stark opposition. Sure the war was increasingly unpopular with the general public, the thinking went, but that only proved their point that McCain was just being McCain, the principled maverick.

Such was the campaign’s wishful thinking. It’s one thing to take an unpopular stand on an issue of moderate importance. The press often — and the public occasionally — rewards politicians who go against the grain. But Iraq is not just any issue. There is a serious national debate over whether Bush’s invasion of Iraq is the biggest foreign policy fiasco in more than a generation, if not since the dawn of the Republic. At the moment, Bush (and, by extension, McCain) are on the losing side of that debate. The expectation that the press would acclaim McCain’s steadfastness on Iraq and leave it at that was misguided. The issue is simply too monumental, especially for a candidate basing his campaign in large part on his national security credentials.

It’s true that Republicans still back Bush, and the Iraq War, but in both cases that support has been steadily eroding. Moreover, just because Republican voters still supported the war more than Americans generally doesn’t mean they did so enthusiastically, or that they would, in large numbers, reward a presidential candidate who positioned himself as the biggest Iraq hawk. My sense, and my read of polling data, is that like most Americans, even those Republicans who say they still support they war are overwhelmingly sick of it. That sentiment inevitably affected the tone of McCain’s press coverage. Reporters may still like and admire McCain more than they do other senators or presidential candidates, but most of them — like most Americans — think he’s seriously wrong on Iraq.

Today McCain took to the Senate floor and argued that the surge is working and that the President deserves more time on Iraq. I don’t doubt that he sincerely believes what he says. But his isolation on Iraq is matched only by Bush’s. And Bush, according to Gallup, is at 29% in the polls. If he were up for re-election, he probably couldn’t even win the nomination. Thanks to Iraq, McCain’s chances aren’t much better. And no staff overhaul can change that.