A funny thing happened to convention-defying political courage, at least in the case of Sen. John McCain. It used to be that McCain’s willingness to boldly follow his principles was considered the gold standard of selfless political principle. Now, the media portray the same boldness as primarily a drag on McCain’s political ambition.
For the press, courage in the pursuit of regulations on “express advocacy” advertisements paid for with soft money apparently counts much more than courage in the pursuit of victory in the Iraq War. The former launched a thousand glowing McCain profiles; the latter is launching only the question: “How will it play in New Hampshire?”
Thus, there’s yet another layer to what, at the moment, is the tragic irony of John McCain. He is exhibiting just the sort of go-it-alone bravery the media pine for – at a time the media are uninterested in celebrating it, either because they consider the war lost or are obsessed with the primary-season horse race. He finally is getting the additional troops for Iraq that he has long advocated – at a time when it might be too late and when support for the war is collapsing. He is winning over the Republican establishment that once loathed him – at a time when the GOP brand is significantly degraded.
There is no justice in any of this. McCain began calling for more troops almost immediately after the invasion and criticized Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld back when he was still a GOP icon. President Bush has come to see the merit of McCain’s view on the conduct of the war, but belatedly.
This has created the most tragic irony of all. After a long period of being distant from or hostile to President Bush, McCain is closer to him than ever, just as Bush is at his lowest ebb of public support. Bush sank McCain’s presidential hopes in 2000 with his enmity; he might sink them in 2008 with his amity.
McCain’s attitude has been that the political considerations don’t matter. Whether he has been bucking an administration of his own party (originally) or public opinion (now), McCain has been standing like a stone wall for the proposition that the war must be won and that our effort must be commensurate with the high stakes.
The political world might yet turn in McCain’s favor. He’s losing support among independents and the press, but you can’t win a Republican presidential nomination with just their support, as McCain learned in 2000. With Republicans, his support for the surge isn’t hurting and might be helping. Perhaps the surge eventually will work, vindicating McCain. Even if it doesn’t, he will be able to argue that the tactic could have worked had it been implemented back when he first called for it, and he still might be the kind of tough leader voters will want in the more dangerous international environment created by a failure in Iraq.
But none of this is guaranteed. One of McCain’s likely primary opponents, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – who is nothing if not shrewd – issued a pro forma statement supporting the surge when it was first announced but has avoided getting too close to it. GOP opponents think that Republican-primary voters will look at McCain and see not the fresh “straight-talker” of 2000, but potentially another Bob Dole circa 1996 – a candidate who gets the nomination because it’s his turn, about whom the GOP base is unenthused and who will carry baggage not of his choosing (in Dole’s case, the government shutdown; in McCain’s, Bush’s management of the war).
All that will be sorted out during the next year. In the meantime, as the windy Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel congratulates himself for his bravery in sponsoring a nonbinding resolution representing an anti-surge position supported by almost 70 percent of the public, and as poll-conscious Republicans flee from Bush, John McCain is steadfast, and the very picture of courageous political leadership.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.