Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Free Pass For McCain on Iraq: Because He's Credible

Yesterday on CNN’s Inside Politics, "Democratic strategist" Paul Begala was giving the President a hard time about the war in Iraq. How? By contrasting him with likely 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Host Joe Johns asked Begala if the Bush administration was failing at "public relations." Here’s how the ardent liberal responded:
PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I think so. If you look at Senator McCain, a Republican in the Senate who's probably the chief supporter of the war in either party, he's seen as the most credible guy in American politics. People respect him and admire him; some agree, some disagree. The president, however, has a credibility problem that McCain doesn't have. They have the same substantive position, but completely different views of credibility. Why? Well, in part, now a majority of Americans in a Gallup poll, 51 percent, say the president misled us going into the war and since then, I think the president has calibrated too far over to the happy-talk side of things and not as far to sort of McCain side of -- as Torie just said, this is very tough, it's bloody, it's awful, but we're in it and we've got to win it. That's a message that even opponents who are like me, I think, could rally to. But I think the president has -- at least has given the public a sense that he's not leveling with us. And when a politician loses his credibility, he loses everything.

Tough talk about the President from the fervent liberal. Bush "misled us going into the war and since then," at least according to the opinion polls. But what about McCain? Does Senator Straight-Talk still have his credibility on the war, even though he has "the same substantive position" as the President. We’ll address that issue in a subsequent post.

Before we get to the question of McCain’s credibility, consider poor John Kerry. During the 2004 Presidential campaign he was blasted every day for being excessively nuanced on the Iraq War. Kerry’s position was that giving the President the authority to go to war was the right thing to do because it gave him the leverage to get UN weapons inspectors re-introduced into Iraq, but that the President should not have attacked Iraq given that the inspectors had been allowed back in. Apparently, this position was too complicated for most of the American press to understand, or to repeat accurately. So Kerry was attacked for criticizing the President over Iraq while having a position that was sort of similar to the President’s, in the both were willing to threaten force in order to get UN inspectors into the country. Bush, in fact got points for his tremendous strength and clarity because he didn’t really care whether UN inspectors were allowed in or not, and therefore attacked Iraq anyway. Kerry, by contrast, was portrayed as a flip-flopper and a weakling because he stuck to the position that if the inspections were working, we shouldn’t attack Iraq.

So contrast this now to Bush versus McCain on Iraq. They have the "same substantive position," but Senator Straight-Talk is great because he holds this position with "credibility" while the President gives us nothing but Happy Talk.

But oops! Host Johns followed with a clip of the President:
BUSH: The violence in recent days in Iraq is a grim reminder of the enemies we face. These terrorists and insurgents will use brutal tactics because they're trying to shake the will of the United States of America. That's what they're trying to do. They want us to retreat. They want us, in our compassion for the innocent, say we're through. That's what they want. They will fail.
Doesn’t sound like Happy Talk to me! Former Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke was on opposite Begala, and she noticed too.
CLARKE: No. I just disagree slightly with Paul and his characterization of the president. . . . To say something is a grim reminder of the brutality of these people, that's hardly happy talk. And when there is a bad patch, that president has been out there more than previous commanders-in-chief in tough times like this. So, I give him credit for trying to be as straight as possible. Of course, he has to be positive and optimistic about the ultimate outcome. He absolutely has to be. It's a tough, tough job and it is easy to sit somewhere else and criticize and talk about all the bad things that are happening. It's harder to be the one that leads the strategy and the plan all the way through.
BEGALA: Yes, but how do you explain that McCain is so trusted and the president so distrusted when they have the same position?

Hmm. Maybe it’s because the press corps, including ardent liberals, just loves McCain so much that they keep giving him a free pass.