McCain’s Conversation Changer: A Misleading Low Blow

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McCain wants the Florida primary to be an election about national security, his best issue. But until Saturday, the contest was humming along as an election more about the economy, Mitt Romney’s best issue. So McCain went on the attack Saturday, lashing out at Romney by accusing him of having once wanted to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

”Now, one of my opponents wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster,” McCain said about Romney, at a stop in Fort Myers. Then McCain added, “If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher.”

When told of the comments, Romney got visibly testy. ”That’s dishonest, to say that I have a specific date. That’s simply wrong,” Romney said at a stop outside Tampa. “To say something that’s not accurate is simply wrong, and he knows better.”

Romney demanded an apology from McCain, which seemed to simply delight McCain, since he used it to escalate the war of words even higher. “I think the apology is owed to the young men and women serving this nation in uniform,” McCain said. Then his campaign started sending out a blizzard of emails, including comments from former CIA director James Woolsey knocking Romney’s support for the war.

To review: In the course of a few hours, McCain said that Romney once wanted to set a date to withdraw from Iraq, accused him of working on the same side as Hillary Clinton in the Iraq debate, and accused him of disrespecting American servicemen and women. Is any of this true? Not that much.

It is certainly true that in the spring of 2007, McCain stood virtually alone in trumpeting the then-unpopular “surge” strategy that Bush had ordered in Iraq. The other GOP candidates technically supported the surge, but unlike McCain they didn’t like to talk about it. When Romney took questions about Iraq on the trail, he would say he supported the surge, that the war on Islamic radicals was important to win, and that he wanted the troops to be able to come home as soon as possible. He also left open the possibility that the surge would fail. But I know of no evidence that shows Romney said he wanted to set a date to abandon the war effort and bring the troops home.

So what evidence does McCain have that Romney supported withdrawal? McCain points to this interview Romney gave to “Good Morning America,” on April 3, 2007:

QUESTION: Iraq. John McCain is there in Baghdad right now. You have also been very vocal in supporting the president and the troop surge. Yet, the American public has lost faith in this war. Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, there’s no question but that — the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement. You don’t want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone. You want to have a series of things you want to see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police, and the leadership of the Iraqi government.

QUESTION: So, private. You wouldn’t do it publicly? Because the president has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, of course. Can you imagine a setting where during the Second World War we said to the Germans, gee, if we haven’t reached the Rhine by this date, why, we’ll go home, or if we haven’t gotten this accomplished we’ll pull up and leave? You don’t publish that to your enemy, or they just simply lie in wait until that time. So, of course, you have to work together to create timetables and milestones, but you don’t do that with the opposition.

McCain says that he thinks this amounts to Romney supporting a drop-dead deadline for withdrawing troops. But that’s not what happened. A more fair reading of the exchange shows that Romney was instead talking about private benchmarks that would allow Bush and Maliki to measure success or failure. In fact, Romney says flat out that he would veto any bill from Congress that contained such a timetable for withdrawal.

But even if Romney had explicitly supported withdrawal, what exactly does McCain mean by demanding that Romney apologize to American troops? Is McCain suggesting that any American who opposed the surge was somehow not supporting American troops? Is he saying that it is unpatriotic to debate American policy in Iraq? It sure sounds like it. And it is an unbecoming posture for McCain, who has been boasting in recent days about the “respectful debate” he would have with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama should he win the nomination.