Saturday, July 26, 2008

McCain's signature: attack opponent's integrity

I remember George Bush Sr., while building a campaign on impugning Michael Dukakis' patriotism, protesting (paraphrasing here), "I'm not questioning his patriotism, just his judgment." Hypocrisy is the debt that vice pays to virtue. Bush at least recognized that openly questioning his opponent's patriotism was scurrilous.

McCain, on the other hand, has made a conscious choice to explictly base his campaign on the absurd allegation that Obama "would rather lose a war than lose a campaign." That's worse than a direct assault on patriotism - it's a denial of the Obama's integrity. Here's the latest:

I said, I will repeat my statement again, that he would rather lose a war than lose a campaign. Because anyone who fails to acknowledge that the surge has worked, who has consistently opposed it, consistently never sat down and had a briefing with General Petraeus, our commander there, would rather lose a war than a political campaign.
Obama has acknowledged that the surge reduced violence in Iraq. He's questioned whether the cost was worth the benefit, and whether the gains of the past year could not have been achieved without a troop buildup. His determination to remove U.S. troops from Iraq is part of a coherent, long-articulated strategy to concentrate more effort in Afghanistan/Pakistan. He may well be wrong about the surge, but to insist that his position is a motivated primarily by political calculation is despicable.

It's also a distraction. McCain is right to hammer home his difference with Obama on the surge. But the effective attack would be on Obama's judgment, not his motives, for opposing the surge and continuing to insist that troops be removed quickly from Iraq. He's handing Obama the opportunity to again decry the politics of personal destruction, a tack he used very effectively against the Clintons.

For McCain, though, the success of the surge, on which he did stake his political career, has devolved to monomania. No disagreement in good faith is possible:

It's clear to me that anyone who fails to acknowledge the success of the surge would clearly have a political consideration.

The irony is that the more McCain digs in on this charge, the more ground he yields to Obama on policy. First he followed suit by calling for additional brigades to be sent to Aghanistan (never mind that, in contrast to Obama, he did not bother to specify where they would come from). Now, pushed by the Iraqi government, he's admitted that sixteen months is a pretty good timetable for withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq.

It should be noted, too, that accusing his opponent of putting personal political gain ahead of the national interest is not a counsel of desperation for McCain, but a longstanding political habit. McCain repeatedly made the same accusation against Bill Clinton. Here he comments on Clinton's liberal licensing policies for sale of technology to China:

Far more distressing is the charge that they [lapses in judgement re technology transfer] are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

McCain has a reputation for integrity, decency, honor. He's won kudos for renouncing attacks that play one way or another on Obama's background, religion, race. But the direct attack on integrity is worse than Rovian (though probably less effective than Rovian insinuation). It bespeaks a kind of lumbering, maladoit aggression in McCain's fundamental approach to political combat, visible also in his wilful distortion of Romney's position vis-a-vis the surge earlier this year. McCain may speak unctiously of respect for his opponent. But he has none.

Update, Sun. July 27: Chuck Hagel warned McCain to back off the patriotism charge on Meet the Press today, echoing Obama's theme that the attack is "unworthy" of McCain:
Hagel was asked about McCain’s recent campaign line that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a campaign. “They’re better off to focus on policy differences. I think John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives and when we start to get into, “You’re less patriotic than me. I’m more patriotic.” I admire and respect John McCain very much. I have a good relationship. To this day we do. We talk often. I talked to him right before I went to Iraq, as a matter of fact. John’s better than that.”

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