McCain is not about to dis­arm

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

When one of the Demo­cratic Party’s most as­tute strate­gists last week crit­i­cized John McCain for at­tack­ing Barack Obama’s de­sire to en­gage Iran’s Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, I asked what the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date ought to talk about in this cam­paign. “Health care and the econ­omy,” he replied. That is a sure for­mula for Demo­cratic vic­tory, but it is one that Mr. McCain’s cam­paign re­jects.

Mr. Obama em­braced that for­mula once it be­came clear that he would best Hil­lary Clin­ton for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion. He be­gan pound­ing Mr. McCain for seek­ing the third term of Ge­orge W. Bush. At the same time, Mr. Obama im­plores Mr. McCain in the in­ter­est of “one na­tion” and “one peo­ple” not to at­tack him. The short­hand, widely re­peated by the news me­dia, is that the Repub­li­can can­di­date must not “Swift boat” Mr. Obama. That amounts to uni­lat­eral po­lit­i­cal dis­ar­ma­ment by Mr. McCain.

Mr. McCain is not about to dis­arm. His cam­paign has no in­ten­tion of fight­ing this bat­tle on Demo­cratic turf. Dur­ing the more than five months ahead, Repub­li­cans will ex­plore the mind­set of this young man who is a stranger to most Amer­i­cans. That in­cludes his as­so­ci­a­tion with the Chicago left­ist William Ayers, who has re­mained un­re­pen­tant about his vi­o­lent role as a 1960s rad­i­cal. This will not be pop­u­lar with Mr. McCain’s erst­while ad­mir­ers in the main­stream news me­dia, but Amer­ica has not heard the last of Bill Ayers in this cam­paign.

In­di­cat­ing what lies ahead is the McCain cam­paign’s plan to bring in Tim Grif­fin, a pro­tege of Karl Rove, who is a lead­ing prac- titioner of op­po­si­tion re­search — dig­ging up deroga­tory in­for­ma­tion about op­po­nents. Al­though fi­nal ar­range­ments have not been pinned down, Mr. Grif­fin would work at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, as he did in Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-elec­tion cam­paign.

It is an ar­ti­cle of Demo­cratic faith that John Kerry would have been elected pres­i­dent had not Repub­li­cans un­der­mined pub­lic con­fi­dence in his lead­er­ship and in­tegrity by as­sail­ing his per­for­mance as a Swift boat com­man­der in Viet­nam. Mr. McCain, idolized by much of the news me­dia in 2000 as the po­ten­tial Bush slayer, is now stig­ma­tized as adopt­ing not only his for­mer in­tra­party ad­ver­sary’s poli­cies but also his tac­tics.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, with Mrs. Clin­ton no longer around to worry about, Mr. Obama de­plores “the failed poli­cies that John McCain wants to dou­ble down on.” He is re­lent­less in press­ing home that point. In Rose­burg, Ore., he said: “If you agree we’ve had a great for­eign pol­icy over the last four or eight years, then you should vote for John McCain [. . .] (He) wants to give you the failed Bush health­care pol­icy for an­other four years.” On May 19, in Billings, Mont., he said: “John McCain has de­cided to run for Ge­orge Bush’s third term.”

While on this at­tack, Mr. Obama rails against any re­spon­sive fire from Mr. McCain. He has lashed out against crit­i­cism of his de­clared will­ing­ness to sit down with Ah­madine­jad and Cuba’s Raul Cas­tro. Mr. McCain’s strate­gists are in­fu­ri­ated by pres­ti­gious po­lit­i­cal re­porters and com­men­ta­tors whom they see sup­port­ing Mr. Obama’s po­si­tion. Time colum­nist Joe Klein turned up in Savannah, Ga., on May 19 for Mr. McCain’s press con­fer­ence, declar­ing that Mr. McCain had mis­rep­re­sented Mr. Obama as propos­ing un­con­di­tional talks with the Ira­nian pres­i­dent. Af­ter as­sert­ing that “I’ve done some re­search” and “also checked with the Obama cam­paign,” Mr. Klein said Mr. Obama “never men­tioned Ah- madine­jad di­rectly by name. He did say he would ne­go­ti­ate with the lead­ers.”

In fact, Mr. Obama has re­peat­edly been ques­tioned specif­i­cally about Ah­madine­jad. At a press con­fer­ence in New York last Septem­ber, Mr. Obama was asked whether he still would meet with Ah­madine­jad. He replied: “Yeah [. . .] I find many of Pres­i­dent Ah­madine­jad’s state­ments odi­ous. [. . .] But we should never fear to ne­go­ti­ate.” In Novem­ber on NBC‘s “Meet the Press,” he de­fended “a con­ver­sa­tion with some­body like Ah­madine­jad.”

The de­bate over such “a con­ver­sa­tion” was height­ened by Mr. Bush’s speech two weeks ago to the Is­raeli Knes­set, sug­gest­ing “ap­pease­ment” by Mr. Obama. The White House has pri­vately in­formed the McCain cam­paign it had no in­ten­tion of leap­ing into pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, but Mr. Obama’s de­fen­sive re­sponse en­abled him again to link Mr. McCain with Mr. Bush. Al­though the Repub­li­can can­di­date would like the un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent to get off­stage po­lit­i­cally, Mr. McCain is not about to run a cam­paign about health care man­dates and home fore­clo­sures.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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