JOHN McCAIN ON THE BAGHDAD TRAIN
The GOP candidate is staking all on the issue of Iraq and security
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
In a 1950s ban-
quet hall on Milwaukee’s snow-steeped south side, several hundred faithful Wisconsin Republicans have dressed up in blazers and pumps and paid $55 per couple to dine on red, white, and blue jelly beans and platters of deep-fried cod. The Milwaukee County Reagan Day Dinner at the home of “the world’s largest fish fry” begins with a prayer blessing “the great democracy that is America,” followed by a solemn hand-over-heart recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a Star-Spangled Banner so large that it covers one wall clear to the ceiling. John McCain, the maverick senator from Arizona who finds himself on the cusp of seizing the Republican party’s presidential nomination only months after his campaign had been written off as defunct, is here to try to persuade these folks to support him, despite the fact that he has spent much of his 21-year Senate career taking positions that contradict, well, the whole blessed point of voting Republican.
It is the weekend before the Wisconsin primary, and days before the New York Times will drop a bombshell into his campaign: anonymous allegations that, nearly a decade ago, unnamed former aides to the senator thought he was having a “romantic” relationship with an attractive, younger female lobbyist. That report will set off a firestorm— mostly aimed at the Times for offering scant evidence for its front-page sensation. And it will help circle some conservative wagons around McCain—something the candidate has trouble doing on his own.
His challenge boils down to people like Cathy Drews, a 50-year-old Milwaukee receptionist in a bright red blazer and pearls, who sighs as she waits for McCain to speak. “I think McCain votes on the wrong side of the issues a lot,” says Drews, noting that he’d partnered with Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to craft legislation that would have allowed undocumented immigrants a path
to citizenship. “I feel it’s extremely important we build a fence on the Mexican border and stop the flow,” she says. “McCain is for amnesty. Why should we even bother with laws about entering this country if they’re not going to be enforced?”
To that transgression, she could have added a litany of complaints that have led some conservative Republicans to call the Vietnam War hero a traitor to the party—and made his emergence as the front-runner all the more stunning. McCain was one of only two Republican senators to oppose George W. Bush’s first tax cut in 2001, and one of only three to oppose the 2003 cuts—the first one because he said it mostly helped the wealthy, and the second because it came at a time of war. He fought to outlaw interrogation tech-
niques in the war on terror that the White House called necessary, but that he called torture. He put his name on campaign finance reform legislation that conservatives say violates free speech, and was a lead sponsor of gun control legislation. He split with his party over drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, and flew to Antarctica, demanding action on climate change. He helped Senate Democrats preserve their ability to filibuster the confirmation of Bush’s judicial nominees. It’s all enough for professional conservative provocateur Ann Coulter to declare that if McCain is the nominee, she’ll vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When he finally takes to the podium 45 minutes late, the white-haired, 71-year-old McCain is wearing a blue-and-red striped
tie and dark jacket that is identical to that worn by a younger-looking Ronald Reagan in the full-length portrait hanging behind him. As far as most of his audience in concerned, that’s where the resemblance ends. “I have a hard time supporting the man,” admits Beau Sanders, a 28-year-old engineer. But then he proceeds to say something that offers a glimmer of hope to the Arizona senator—and foreshadows the strategy McCain will likely bring to bear against the Democrats now that the uproar over the New York Times story appears to be subsiding.
“He is the one I feel the most comfortable with on the national security issue.” For the past few months, it has been possible to attend Republican rallies and not hear much about the Iraq war. Former Massachusetts governor and CEO Mitt Romney, who had no national security experience, preferred to talk about the economy and family
values. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, never failed to talk about eliminating the 1RS or amending the U.S. constitution to reflect God’s will, and was capable of putting on an entire appearance without once mentioning the word Iraq. (When asked about this by Maclean’s, Huckabee said there were at least 20 issues he didn’t have time to get to. At least the war made that top 20.) But McCain is seizing on the question of national security—and specifically the war in Iraq—as the one issue he can most credibly and successfully rally his party around. His nomination will all but guarantee that Iraq will be a central issue for voters come November.
When McCain launches his half-hour speech in Milwaukee, he begins by trying to make
amends with conservatives by promising to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent, explaining that allowing them to expire would amount to a tax hike. He offers to cut taxes for corporations and the middle class; to hold the line on government spending; and to secure the borders before reforming immigration rules. But more than half of his speech is dedicated to the war and national security.
“I am running,” he declares, “because I believe we face the transcendent challenge of the 21st century, which is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism—one of the greatest evils that this nation has ever faced. It’s an ideology that is warped and evil and wants to destroy everything we stand for and believe
FORGET THAT NASTY NEW YORK TIMES STORY. IN THE WAR ON TERROR, ‘I WILL NEVER SURRENDER.9
in. I want to look you in the eye and tell you, I will never, ever surrender. They will.” Hillary Clinton has pledged to begin reducing troop levels in Iraq within 60 days of taking office. Barack Obama has said he’ll have all combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months. McCain is staking his political future and that of his party on the opposite. Not only will he not set any timetable for withdrawal, he has said he’d be comfortable if the U.S. kept a military presence in Iraq for “a hundred years.” He has already given CNN interviewer Larry King a taste of the rhetoric he’ll aim at the Democrats: “Both Senator Obama and Clinton want to set a date for withdrawal. That means chaos. That means genocide.” In Milwaukee, he adds, “al-Qaeda
could say it had defeated the United States of America.”
It’s an enormous gamble for the Arizona senator—especially considering opinion polls showing a clear majority of Americans now say the Iraq war was not worth it. But it’s a gamble that McCain has made before. Only a year ago, he was an outspoken supporter of the Bush administration’s military “surge” in Iraq—a buildup of30,000 additional troops as the polls suggested 60 per cent of Americans opposed an increase. While the pundits wrote his political obituary, McCain was unmoved. “I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war,” he said. Now he’s gambling he can win both.
So far, so good, he says. He is headed for his party’s nomination, and the surge, he argues, has succeeded. “The central batdeground in the war on terror is now Iraq, and contrary to what some will tell you, the surge is succeeding,” he says. He notes that in Baghdad, thousands of people filled the streets to celebrate New Year’s Eve. There was a five-kilometre run in the city of Ramadi, which “a year ago was a ffee-fire zone.” And, McCain adds: “In case
you missed it a few days ago, the Iraqi parliament passed a law concerning reconciliation, and by the way, they passed a budget—something we can’t do in Washington.”
Of course, the amount of political progress the military escalation has brought is debatable. In his appeal, McCain is not above pulling heartstrings. He tells of the military mom he met in New Hampshire who gave him a bracelet with her 22-year-old son’s name engraved on it. He had been killed in combat outside Baghdad before Christmas. McCain says she told him, “Just promise me one thing, and that is to make sure you will do everything in your power to make sure that my son’s death was not in vain.” He adds, “I want to be president to take on this challenge.”
It helps that national security is in his blood. He is introduced at the Milwaukee dinner by former Bush cabinet minister and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who reminds the audience that McCain’s father was an admiral, as was his grandfather. Of McCain’s seven children, one is a Marine who has recently returned from Iraq, and another is enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where McCain was rebellious and graduated 894th in a class of899The young, hot-tempered McCain asked to serve in Vietnam as a Navy pilot. On his 23rd bombing mission in October 1967, he was shot down, injured and captured. He spent 5V2 years as a prisoner of war, tortured to the brink of death, but repeatedly demonstrating courage. He came back with a broken body. To this day, he can’t raise his arms over his head.
In his speech in Milwaukee, McCain doesn’t boast of his war record—he pokes fun at it. (“I would remind you that it doesn’t take a
lot of pilot skills or talent to get shot down. I was able to intercept the surface-to-air missile with my own plane... ”) The room falls reverently silent as he tells stories of the heroism of other prisoners, all the while deftly reminding the audience of his own ordeal. He recounts the tale of a fellow prisoner named Mike Christian, who used a crude bamboo needle to secretly sew an American flag inside his prison shirt—until one evening when he was found out and brutally beaten for his efforts. That night, McCain recalls, just as he was lying down on the concrete slab he was forced to sleep on, he saw the same young man, his face bloodied from the beating, slumped in his corner fashioning another needle from bamboo to begin his flag anew. The audience gets the point about sacrifice and patriotism—and also the point that John McCain can talk about things like sacrifice and patriotism because he spent years sleeping on that concrete slab.
And so the Milwaukee audience is inclined to believe McCain when he declares that, “If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.” Someone shouts, “Thank you,” and the room jumps to its feet in a standing ovation, his biggest applause of the night.
The other part of McCain’s pitch is that had he been in charge, the war would have been waged better. McCain long called for a greater troop deployment to Iraq. For a while on the campaign trail, he even insisted that
THE TIMES’STORY DID WHAT McCAIN COULDN’T: IT RALLIED CONSERVATIVES AROUND HIM
he had been standing up to the Bush administration and had called for the ouster of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (His campaign later had to admit that this was an exaggeration.)
While the decline in Iraqi violence has complicated the political picture, there is no question that McCain’s strategy gives Democrats an enormous political opening. The party has already made commercials seizing on McCain’s statement that U.S. troops could stay in Iraq for 100 years. Clinton and Obama are also beginning to try to pierce McCain’s maverick image and his appeal to independents by painting his war strategy as merely a third Bush term, or as Clinton put it in one campaign stop, simply “more of the same.”
But for now there is no doubt that the Iraq
issue is helping McCain unite his fractured party behind him. Chuck Caira, 42, a construction worker from the Milwaukee suburb of Butler, arrives at the party dinner critical of the senator. “McCain in the past proved he was not really a conservative,” he says. But after hearing him out, Caira says he was more moved than he expected to be by McCain’s Vietnam ordeal—and inspired by his words on Iraq. “I know people who have re-enlisted to go back to Iraq. They see things changing there. If we leave now, all the lives that have been lost will have been in vain,” he says. Drews, the receptionist, says she agrees with McCain on Iraq and will support him, despite his other policy sins. “I think McCain is going to be strong on defence,” she says. But as with other conservative Republicans, hers is not a particularly ringing endorsement. “I don’t think I can count on him for anything else.” When the votes are counted, McCain gets 55 per cent of the Republican primary voters in Wisconsin—including 48 per cent of those calling themselves conservatives. By the next evening, the New York Times story is posted onlinetransforming the campaign narrative for a spell. McCain’s conservative critics such as Coulter and Rush Limbaugh turn their fire against the newspaper. The campaign is able to use the article to raise money from the party base. “The New York Times... has shown once again that it cannot exercise good journalistic judgment when it comes to dealing with a conservative Republican,” campaign manager Rick Davis writes in a fundraising email. The Republican National Committee sends a similar plea, asking supporters to help fight the “shameless liberal media.” As conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck observes, “the New York Times is doing what John McCain couldn’t do: rally support for John McCain.”
After a press conference categorically denying the allegations, McCain declares he won’t discuss the subject further. This week, he’s been back to his “straight talk” about Iraq. At a campaign appearance in Rocky River, Ohio, he goes as far as to say he must convince the nation that the Iraq policy is succeeding. If he can’t, “then I lose. I lose,” McCain says. Suddenly realizing his talk is getting a bit straighter than intended, he tries to hedge. “If I may, I’d like to retract ‘I’ll lose...’ ” says McCain. But it’s too late. His big bet has been made. M