I think we can all agree on what was going on in the spring of 2007, when Mitt Romney spoke about the surge in Iraq. He was taking what looked like the safest political position for a Republican. He supported the president’s policy, but he left open the possibility that it would fail. He said over and over again that he wanted to bring the troops home as soon as possible, which was meant to mollify the doves. He also said that America had to succeed in its war against Islamic radicals, which was meant to please the hawks. He supported private benchmarks for grading whether or not the surge was working. By implication, this meant that he could eventually support an actual timetable to withdraw troops. But he did NOT say he supported a timetable for withdrawal, in the way that McCain has repeatedly suggested.
Below Ana links to an AP story and a New York Times story to suggest that it was widely reported that Romney had a specific date in mind. I don’t read those articles that way. Here is a fuller context of the AP story, which makes more clear that Romney did not mean “timetable” in the code-word way that congressional Democrats were using the word.
Romney, campaigning in Iowa, also chastised Democratic Senate and House leaders in Washington on Iraq, saying: “It is not up to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to dictate to the commanders in the field or to the commander in chief.” 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.
Similarly, the New York Times story linked below, when taken in a larger context, makes clear that Romney had been unwavering in his stated support for the surge, even as he lacked McCain’s enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said in a telephone interview from Texas, where he was campaigning, that the “most crucial objective is to make sure that Iraq doesn’t become a safe haven for Al Qaeda or other jihadist terrorists.” . . .
There has been much dissecting of Mr. Romney’s statements on Iraq over the last few months by those looking for any sign that he is distancing himself from the administration’s stance on the war. At last week’s Republican debate, for example, Mr. Romney said he believed the troop increase in Iraq was “apparently working,” prompting Mr. McCain to declare brusquely: “It is working. No, not ‘apparently.’ It’s working.”
Mr. Romney’s advisers point out that he has been consistent in his support for Mr. Bush’s troop escalation, and he again voiced support for the president after his speech. But he 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. Mr. Romney said yesterday that his comments were consistent with General Petraeus’s recommendations. “It’s clearly the intent of General Petraeus that we increasingly move toward an ‘overwatch,’ or support role and bring down our troop level,” Mr. Romney said.
John McCain did not talk about Iraq in the way Romney did. He supported the surge forcefully, and without flinching. He said over and over that he would stay as long as it takes, or at least as long as the American people allowed the war to continue. Unlike Romney, he staked his reputation and his presidential ambitions on it. And he is justified if he wants to point out that Romney had a far more nuanced view at the time. But that does NOT give McCain a free pass to say that Romney supported a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, without evidence. And it does NOT excuse McCain from demanding that Romney apologize to American troops, simply because Romney may have had a different approach to the debate over the war in Iraq.
It is also worth remembering that there is a reason politicians say things that are not entirely true. They want the media to cover the controversy. They want to change the conversation. This is what McCain wanted when he went after Romney on Saturday and, as this blog post attests, he succeeded.