Re: McCain’s Conversation-Changer

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Jacksonville, FL

Despite a pretty positive 36 hours of local coverage here in Florida– thanks to endorsements by Gov. Crist, Sen. Martinez and stumping by Lieberman — McCain is getting hammered in the national press for his accusation that Romney supported a timed withdrawal from Iraq.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read the relevant ABC transcript. (If not, here you go.) It is not clear at all from Romney’s comments that he endorsed a timetable for withdrawal back in April. McCain overstated the case, especially when he said Romney had a specific date in mind. Yet, back when Romney said it, many news organizations, including the AP and the NYT, characterized his position as exactly that did characterize Romney’s position as among the least hawkish of the Republicans:

In recent days, Romney has suggested that he supports a “timetable” and “milestones” for Iraqis and the U.S. to gauge success as long as such benchmarks aren’t made public. (AP)

[H]e has been talking in more detail recently on the trail about the prospect of bringing troops home, suggesting at an appearance at a V.F.W. post in New Hampshire this month that he hoped the military would be able to move to a support role in Iraq sometime in 2008. (NYT)

Romney’s present-day denials that he supported withdrawal have escalated to the point of literally accusing McCain of “lying.” (Probably the toughest talk uttered from Mitt’s mouth since H-E-double-hockey-sticks; and he immediately tried to take it back.) This fervor was not present in 2007. If Romney feels so strongly about people mischaracterizing his position now, where was that righteous anger then?

I don’t necessarily think Romney wanted to withdrawal the troops then, I even believe that he definitely doesn’t want to do it now. But in grim days of Iraq circa 2007, the ambiguity of his position (and his interview response certainly ambiguous) helped him. Now that the Republican base has rallied around the surge, and now that the issue is not toxic among other Americans, Romney is trying to claim his position was never ambiguous at all.

UPDATE: Stephen Hayes points out that Romney’s answer was meandering, but the question he was responding to was quite direct:

Writers from the Associated Press and Time magazine, among others, have suggested Romney’s quote does not constitute an endorsement of “secret timetables” for withdrawal. It is a debatable point. If Romney does not actually say, “I support secret timetables for withdrawal,” he does seem to endorse such timetables in response to a question about withdrawal. That’s important. It was a direct question: “Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?” If the answer was no, presumably Romney would have said so. He did not.

We’ll see how the spat between the two plays out here in Florida. On the one hand, it mars the McCain brand (at least with his “base,” the MSM) badly, maybe irretrievably. (Let’s just declare a moratorium on “crooked talk” puns/references now, before we get tired of them. Oh, wait…) On the other, it keeps Romney from talking about the economy (a topic that he has total command of) and puts the focus back on Iraq. Which is probably good for McCain at the moment, but, as we move forward to the general, it’s even better for the Democrats.

UPDATE: Thanks to Michael for digging even further into the context for all these remarks. My last comments here.