In the Arena

McCain Gaffery

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Michael Kinsley’s brilliant line about a gaffe being the accidental disclosure of a political truth is true more often than not–but not always. Sometimes a gaffe is the revelation of ignorance. Sometimes it’s just…a gaffe. It is simply ridiculous for journalists–and political operatives–to expect perfect speech from candidates at all times. So I’m not going to jump on John McCain for his gaffery du jour. We are drawing down in Iraq, but not to a lower level than existed before the surge. So the old fellah was a month–and a brigade–or so off. Big deal.

McCain’s other gaffe–saying that things are “quiet” in Mosul on a day when there were three suicide bombings–isn’t so serious either, but it is indicative of the loose, inaccurate language McCain has consistently deployed when talking about Iraq: words like victory and surrender, for example. McCain would have been perfectly accurate if he had said that things had been “quieter” or “better” in Mosul lately. His inability to understand and acknowledge the fragility of every day in Iraq casts doubt about his ability to understand the delicate interplay of contending forces that will be necessary to turn the recent security gains into longer term political successes.

Of course, it’s easy for me–sky-high-minded journolista that I am–to be gracious here. If I were part of the Obama campaign, I would hammer the hell out of McCain over this because…McCain’s campaign–and the bilious press operation at the Republican National Committee–have been hammering Obama over trivialities for weeks now. I mean, trying to make a big deal over the fact that Obama’s childhood memory was that his uncle liberated Auschwitz, rather than Buchenwald–how petty and juvenile is that?

If McCain wants to run an honorable campaign–as he says he does–he shouldn’t go around twisting Obama’s actual intent, for example, about meeting with the leaders of Iran or Cuba without preconditions. He would dispute what Obama would actually do here: Start with low-level talks that would eventually lead a presidential-level meeting without the preconditional demand that Iran stop enriching uranium. McCain and Obama have an actual disagreement over this–and if McCain wants to conduct his campaign with dignity, he’ll stop trying to demagogue this issue, and hit Obama on their real differences.

But if McCain continues on his hyperbolic, trivial, angry path–as he seems intent on doing–then the Obama campaign will have every right to point out demagogue in return: that McCain doesn’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’a, doesn’t know who the actual leader of Iran is, wants to keep fighting in Iraq for 100 years, wants to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran…and doesn’t know how many troops we have in Iraq.