The President of the United States just can’t help himself. Even when he is trying to praise an ally, he ends up smearing the patriotism of his political opponents. George W. Bush, the first sitting president since Lyndon Johnson in 1968 not to address his party’s convention because, like Johnson, his popularity is in the tank, told the delegates via satellite that John McCain was the man for the job primarily because of his support for the troop surge in Iraq last year.
To be clear, John McCain called for a troop surge at the very beginning of the war when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney and the President were still telling the nation that the Iraq war could be won on the cheap. For the first four years of the war, McCain was Bush’s harshest GOP critic when discussing the tactical issues involved in Iraq, even while he failed to question the strategic equation.
It is a point worth arguing whether or not the troop surge worked. It certainly reduced violence, and the turnover of authority to Iraqis in the formerly violence-plagued province of Anbar this week is a great event. But, the reduction of violence was presented as a means towards the end, not an end in itself. The objective of the surge was to create the room for a political settlement and there remains little or no evidence that this goal is any closer today than it was before the surge. Reducing violence is a good thing in and of itself, no doubt. Americans can be forgiven for wondering how long our troops will be deployed with no political settlement among the Iraqis and, lest we forget, the Iraqi government is wondering the same thing.
Bush did not focus on such fine distinctions. He wanted to question the patriotism of those who disagreed with his foreign policy. He wanted to smear the Democrats. "One senator above all had faith in our troops and the importance of their mission, and that was John McCain." By eliding the difference between the troops and their mission, Bush turns opposition to his policies into a denigration of the troops. That’s a smear. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the President said last night was so beneath the dignity of his office, it earned him a lower circle in political hell than any of his predecessor’s antics.
At dinner last spring with a Republican friend of mine, I offered that the prospect of an election campaign between McCain and Barack Obama held out the hope of one of the best campaigns in memory. They have honest and thorough differences between them about what direction the country should take both at home and abroad and neither candidate had shown an inclination for lowball tactics of the kind Karl Rove and George W. Bush turned into an art form. Sadly, McCain’s campaign has come this far only by smearing Obama’s patriotism, asserting that he would rather win the political campaign than the war in Iraq. Obama thinks the war in Iraq was a mistake and has thought so from the beginning. He may be right, he may be wrong, but it is slimy politics to question his patriotism on such grounds. The debate the nation needs about its own future is being squandered by the politics-as-usual coming from the GOP.
What goes around comes around. I doubt anything said from the podium, or the jumbo screen, at the convention hall registered very deeply with the American electorate. The voters were far too busy discussing the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter, another "issue" that simply distracts us from the debate we should be having. Palin has turned into an embarrassment of riches for the Democrats’ opposition research team, but of all the many stories of questionable activities swirling around the Alaska governor, the fact that her child is pregnant tells us the least about how Palin would govern. But one good smear deserves another evidently, and the campaign of 2008 finds itself in the gutter already.
Michael Sean Winters