The senator and the president deliver nearly identical speeches about Iraq in the same state a day apart.
Arizona Sen. John McCain stood before an auditorium of uniformed cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., on Wednesday with a message about the war in Iraq. “There are the first glimmers of progress,” McCain said, in what his campaign billed as the first of three major policy speeches that will lead to the official announcement of his presidential campaign later this month.
McCain was reading the words off a teleprompter in the back of the room, but it was hard not to notice how closely they matched a statement made just 25 hours earlier by President Bush, who had also come to Virginia to talk to a military audience. “We’re beginning to see some progress towards our mission,” Bush had declared to American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax.
The echo-chamber effect did not end there. On Tuesday, Bush told his listeners that the Democratic leadership was “irresponsible” for attaching restrictions on funding for the troops, which Bush called a “political statement” that could risk the war effort. On Wednesday, McCain told the VMI cadets that Democrats had chosen a “reckless” road that would “deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat.” On Tuesday, Bush praised Iraq’s new oil law, warned of a power vacuum that would be caused by a U.S. withdrawal, and spoke of the lessons of Sept. 11. On Wednesday, so did McCain.
Seven years ago, no one would have guessed that Bush and McCain would be working off the same set of talking points in the same states just one day apart. Back then, Bush and McCain were bitter rivals locked in a nasty battle for the Republican nomination, which left a legacy of lingering resentment. But as McCain endures a struggling start to his campaign to follow Bush to the White House, the Arizona Republican has chosen to tie his fate to an unpopular military plan developed by a sitting president with an approval rating in the mid-30s. McCain says he has no illusions about the fact that his campaign may hinge on the military success of Bush’s plan in Iraq. “Irony of ironies,” McCain told reporters several weeks ago, on a campaign swing through Iowa. “Life is not fair.”
Rather than downplay the irony, McCain has chosen to embrace it, encouraged by polls that show a majority of Republican primary voters still support the military strategy in Iraq. As a result, McCain has become President Bush’s most prominent — and perhaps effective — pitchman for continuing American involvement in Iraq. Unlike Bush, McCain is a combat veteran and endured more than five years as a Vietnamese prisoner of war. Unlike Bush, McCain has carefully nurtured a reputation for “straight talk,” which includes years of blistering criticism of Bush for his faltering military plan in Iraq. And wherever he goes, McCain attracts press attention that approaches that of Bush, as was evident this month when McCain traveled to Iraq and declared that the security situation had improved. “It is my obligation to give it a chance to succeed,” McCain said Wednesday, about the current military strategy. “To do otherwise would be contrary to the interests of my country and dishonorable.”
This strategic gambit is remarkable not just for its obvious electoral risks in the general election, but for the fact that no other Republican candidate has yet to race so fervently into the breach. The two other so-called Republican front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, both say they support the president’s plans for escalating troops into Iraq. But they also both take pains to keep their distance from the president’s plan, rarely describing it in detail during campaign stops. At a “national security” speech on Tuesday in Texas, Romney brushed over his support of the Iraq war plan in a few quick sentences, before retreating into the far more comfortable terrain of foreign policy abstraction. “In my view, our objective is a strong America and a safe world,” Romney said, before offering a proposal to increase the size of the overall military by 100,000 troops.
Other long-shot Republican candidates have kept a greater distance from the president’s Iraq policy. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback opposes the current escalation of troop numbers in Iraq. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee seems more confident speaking about high school music classes than the war. When asked, he often dodges the question by saying that he does not have the same information as the president to evaluate the situation in Iraq, though he adds that he supports the president’s policy. Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, another possible presidential contender, has called for a timetable to disengage from Iraq.
The leader of the military campaign in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, says it is still too early to tell if the escalation of the American military presence in Iraq is succeeding. The “surge” was announced in January, but new sweeps in Baghdad only began in mid-February. President Bush says that only about half of the additional U.S. troops he intends to send have arrived in Baghdad. In the meantime, little has changed on the ground. The Iraqi government reports that violent civilian deaths climbed to 1,861 in March, up from 1,645 in February. On Monday, the New York Times reported 116 hostile deaths of American soldiers in the seven weeks after the escalation of troops began, compared with 113 deaths in the seven weeks before.
McCain alone seems willing to mimic Bush’s talking points — but he also tempers them with criticism of the president and a more prominent acknowledgment of the tenuousness of the situation in Iraq. In his speech Wednesday at the Virginia Military Institute, a state-run school for military officers, McCain offered several qualifications to his assessment of Iraq. “The hour is late,” he said, “and despite the developments I just described, we should have no illusion that success is certain.”
McCain also took several swipes at President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who have long described Iraq in rosy terms — “last throes,” “dead-enders” — that have repeatedly proven to be false. “I understand, and you understand, the damage false optimism does to public patience and support,” McCain said. “I learned long ago to be skeptical of official reports that are long on wishful thinking and short on substance.”
Polls suggest that the American people have also learned this lesson, which makes McCain’s task much more difficult. He has become the new salesman for the latest version of a failed product. As such, he may no longer control his own political destiny.
More Related Stories
- Illinois' fracking and coal rush is a national crisis
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Kaitlyn Hunt refuses plea offer, will go to court over high school relationship
- DHS admits "impossible" to control 3D-printed guns
- Journalists file suit against Manning trial secrecy
- Russia: Syrian regime ready to talk peace
- Report: Nearly a quarter of all Americans struggle to afford food
- Ted Cruz against the world
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- 2 men arrested for endangering commercial aircraft
- Oversized load blamed for bridge collapse
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Iran hackers aiming at U.S. energy firms
- Lawyers release data in attempt to discredit Trayvon Martin
- Anonymous rallies behind Kaitlyn Hunt
- Bridge collapse: Part of "aging infrastructure"
- Mistrial in penalty phase of Arias case
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Interstate 5 bridge collapses north of Seattle
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11