Conceding John McCain's "toughness" on national security

Will Democrats follow their failed strategy of the last eight years of trying to remove national security as an issue by copying Republicans?

Published February 10, 2008 12:13PM (EST)

(updated below)

Conventional media wisdom is already solidifying that John McCain's greatest political asset is national security. This is a completely bizarre proposition given that there is no politician who has been more mindlessly supportive than McCain of endless war in Iraq, one of America's most unpopular wars in its history. Only in Media World could undying support for an extremely unpopular war be considered a political asset.

Beyond Iraq, McCain is as pure a warmonger as it gets in the American political mainstream. He is supported by the most extreme neoconservative ideologues, such as Bill Kristol, John Bolton and Joe Lieberman, precisely because they perceive, correctly, that he would be the candidate most likely to enable their paramount dreams of endless Middle East war. The virtual certainty that McCain will ensure the endless occupation of Iraq and, worse, will inevitably provoke more American wars, ought to be considered his greatest political liability, not his greatest asset.

Democrats should be eager -- not afraid -- to have the 2008 election turn on a referendum on whether Americans want to continue paying for the indefinite occupation of Iraq, and more so, whether we will start new Americans wars -- i.e., whether they want to have the same neoconservative extremists who got us into Iraq continue to dominate America's foreign policy, as they will under President McCain. McCain's supposed great strong suit is actually his greatest vulnerability, if Democrats are willing to make that case.

But what has characterized establishment Democrats for the last eight years, at least, is an unwillingness to challenge Republicans on national security. Ever since the 2002 AUMF vote, their "strategy" has been to cede national security to the Republicans by trying defensively to insist that there are few differences between the parties ("we're strong, too") -- all in the hope of shifting the political debate to issues they perceive are politically more advantageous, such as domestic and economic issues. That's why there has been so little contrast between the two parties on foreign policy and national security issues -- because most Democrats believe that the wisest course of action is to become replicas of Republicans on national security policy as a means of eliminating those issues from consideration. The "strategy" has been as ineffective as it has been craven.

Contrary to the media's narrative, John McCain is a huge, juicy target for making the case that Republican warmongering has been, and will continue to be, a complete disaster for the U.S. The central question, though, is whether the Democratic candidate will cede this ground by attempting to copy McCain and argue that they are "tough," too -- or whether they will draw a real contrast by arguing that McCain's insatiable craving for war is anything but "tough."

Top Clinton aide Terry McAuliffe was on MSNBC this week with Chris Matthews and was asked directly whether McCain was too much of a "hawk" on national security -- meaning: is McCain a dangerous warmonger? McAuliffe's answer is a textbook illustration of exactly the Democratic cowardice that has been so destructive both to the country and their own political interests over the last eight years (video is here):

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you again about what you're facing now, John McCain -- he's even joked about bombing Iran. I know it was a joke -- let's not overplay it -- but he's certainly a very strong hawk. Is he too hawkish for the American people as our next president?

MCAULIFFE: Well, listen it's going to be quite a debate as we head into the fall. I think Sen. McCain's biggest problems are going to be dealing with the issues on the economy. That is not considered his strong suit. It is considered the strong suit for Hillary, as you know -- on the housing crisis, she's been the first one to get out in front on that, called for moratorium on home foreclosures, called for a freeze on interest rates for the next five years, she's been dealing with the credit crisis. So I think as it relates to Sen. McCain, he knows that he can't really deal with these economic issues -- he's been all over the map -- supporting the Bush tax cuts, against the Bush tax cuts. Hillary has been very consistent out there on these economic issues.

So he's going to try, I think, Chris, to continue to show that he's the most hawkish, he will be the toughest on national security -- that's going to be their fall campaign. As you know, they did it to us in 2004 with the Swift Boating of Sen. Kerry. They're going to do that same type of campaign again this time. They're not going to Swift Boat Hillary Clinton. They have no ability to do that. We're going to run a strong campaign because we know we're out there fighting for millions of Americans who want health care, want their homes to be preserved, and want to keep us safe.

If the Democrats want a blueprint for a sure losing strategy, they need look no further than McAuliffe's answer. He was asked expressly whether McCain is too much of a hawk -- whether his foreign policy views are dangerously war-loving -- and although he gave a long, rambling answer, McAuliffe never once dared to criticize McCain on national security -- not one word of criticism. Instead, he ignored the issue, immediately switched the topic to the economy, accepted the premise that McCain was "tough" and formidable on foreign policy, and then argued that Hillary was just as "tough" and would not, therefore, be vulnerable to attack. In other words: Hillary and McCain are the same on national security -- equally "tough" -- therefore that can be ignored and the focus should be on domestic issues.

That is the same failed strategy that Democrats have been pursuing with complete futility for the last eight years. In 2002, they became convinced by their vapid, craven "strategists" that if they voted for the war in Iraq, it would take national security off the table and enable the midterm elections to be decided by domestic issues. In 2004, they decided that they would reject a candidate who provided too much of a contrast on national security (Howard Dean) in favor of one who, having supported the war and with a record of combat, would neutralize national security as an election issue.

And ever since, they have continuously run away from any opportunity to create a clear contrast with the GOP on national security issues, most notably refusing to stop the war in Iraq, failing to impede radical measures such as the Military Commissions Act, and -- as the lead Editorial in the NYT this morning angrily points out -- they are now not only capitulating to, but actually leading (in the form of their Intelligence Committee Chair, Jay Rockefeller), the Bush/Cheney crusade to legalize warrantless eavesdropping and institutionalize lawlessness through telecom amnesty.

Notably, the one time they actually allowed a contrast to be created on national security -- in the run-up to the 2006 midterm election, when they were perceived to be the anti-war party and the GOP was perceived to be tied to Iraq -- they won a decisive victory. When they seek to remove national security as an issue by copying Republicans, they lose.

The personality cult that is going to be created around the Great and Honorable Warrior, John McCain, is going to be unlike anything seen since the transformation of George W. Bush into Napoleon on Mission Accomplished Day. Democrats are never going to "out-hawk" John McCain, and if they endorse the premise that a willingness to wage war is the hallmark of American "toughness" and security -- as McAuliffe did -- then they are certain to lose.

It is long past time for America to have the debate over whether our willingness to fight one unnecessary war after the next -- more than any other country in the world -- and to see war as a central method for dealing with other countries, is smart or "tough" or conducive to being "safe." The last thing the country needs -- and the last thing Democrats should want -- is a Democratic candidate whose strategy is to accept the GOP foreign policy premises and then make themselves as much as possible like Joe Lieberman, Bill Kristol and John McCain.

The Democrats' greatest failure over the last eight years -- both political and substantive -- has been a refusal to offer any contrast to Republican warmongering and fearmongering in the national security realm. With the Republicans about to nominate one of the country's most unhinged warlovers, that cowardly strategy is more dangerous, and more self-destructive, than ever before. In general, television appearances by Terry McAuliffe are one of Barack Obama's greatest political assets -- it takes at least 24 hours to begin expunging the sour aftertaste -- but this specific answer by McAuliffe is reflective of exactly what Democrats should want most to reject.

UPDATE: Matt Welch, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, gave a speech last month (h/t Andrew Sullivan) in which he explained that McCain's "whole career, his life, his training, his family background has been to be a member of . . . the Imperial Class"; that McCain is motivated by an "inspiring trust of America's governance of the world"; and that "he would be the most imperial-oriented President, most militaristic President, since Teddy Roosevelt, at least."

For that reason, it's difficult -- really impossible -- to envision a Democratic candidate defeating John McCain without aggressively making the case that that sort of wild militarism and imperialism is destructive to America's future and to both its military and economic security. If the GOP's core foreign policy premises are accepted -- if the Democratic candidate is going to tacitly endorse the principle that American security is preserved by aggressive militarism -- then why wouldn't that lead to the conclusion that the most militaristic candidate of all, John McCain, is the superior choice?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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