As the general election ramps up in earnest, there is a pattern emerging. The battles Obama is choosing to wage in the campaign show that when he attacks McCain, he often does so on issues on which he himself is vulnerable. It is an odd pattern to be sure. It is hard to tell if it is a deliberate strategy intended to head off criticism, or if it is the unintentional reaction of someone who is projecting his own potential weaknesses onto his opponent.
Several weeks ago, when McCain said the US had drawn down troops to pre-surge levels, Obama went right after him. When McCain refused to back away from his comments and instead chose the “verb tense” defense, Obama turned up the heat:
"Now we all misspeak sometimes. I’ve done it myself. So on such a basic, factual error, you’d think that John McCain would just say, 'Oh, I misspoke, I made a mistake' -- and then move on. But he couldn't do that. Instead, he dug in," Obama said and connected it to Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, "We all know this president refused to admit that he made a mistake. That’s the leadership that we’ve had enough of over the last eight years."
This line of attack is interesting because of Obama’s own unwillingness to admit mistake. Did Obama admit mistake when he said that we need more Arab translators in Afghanistan? Did he admit mistake when he answered in the affirmative when asked, “Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”
He did not. In each case, Obama spent considerable energy trying to convince everyone that what he actually said was not what he really meant, and that what he really meant was not what he actually said. It was the listener who was mistaken, not Obama who had made one.
Obama has been a consistent opponent of the surge. His opposition was based on the premise that the surge would not work:
We cannot impose a military solution on what has effectively become a civil war. And until we acknowledge that reality, we can send 15,000 more troops, 20,000 more troops, 30,000 more troops. I don't know any expert on the region or any military officer that I've spoken to privately that believe that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground.
Yet the surge has indeed made a very substantial difference in reducing violence and opening the door to significant political reconciliation. And though the progress remains fragile and still potentially reversible, the success of the surge has surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic predictions. Has Obama admitted his mistake in not only opposing the surge, but claiming it wouldn’t work? Hardly. When McCain recently questioned Obama’s foreign policy judgment, Obama dug in:
[McCain] should explain to the American people why almost every single promise and prediction that he has made about Iraq has turned to be catastrophically wrong, including his support for a surge that was supposed to achieve political reconciliation.
And now, with everyone including the media acknowledging the success of the surge and the progress in Iraq, instead of admitting his mistake, Obama simply scrubs his website of the passages that denigrated the surge and denied its success.
On balance, it is Obama who is much more likely when confronted with a mistake, to refuse to admit it and dig in.
In Obama’s victory speech in St. Paul as he was securing the Democratic nomination and moving from his bruising battle with Hillary to the upcoming campaign against McCain, he said the following:
Because while John McCain can legitimately tout moments of independence from his party in the past, such independence has not been the hallmark of his presidential campaign.
It's not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush ninety-five percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year.
That’s a nice statistic. The fact is, however, John McCain has earned the nickname Maverick the old fashioned way – he earned it. And while Obama is concerned with the “hallmark” of McCain’s presidential campaign, he simply wants to deny the hallmark of his own Senate career. He has been ranked as the most liberal Senator by National Journal based upon his voting record in 2007. The Wall Street Journal described Obama as a reliably liberal Democrat who, since he talks a good game of bipartisanship without actually ever delivering on it, may well lack the philosophical inclination or political backbone to stand anywhere other than with his feet firmly planted on the left side of the Democratic party.
On balance, it is Obama who is the toe-the-line partisan.
Further in the St. Paul speech Obama delivered this:
The other side will come here in September and offer a very different set of policies and positions, and that is a debate I look forward to. It is a debate the American people deserve. But what you don't deserve is another election that's governed by fear, and innuendo, and division.
As for fear, it was Obama who tried to scare people by twisting a McCain quote, suggesting that McCain would have us waging an active war in Iraq for 100 years. As for innuendo, it was Obama who obliquely referred to McCain’s age by saying he was “losing his bearings”. As for division, it was Obama who told a wealthy group of elite San Francisco supporters that it would be a struggle to get economically-challenged rural Pennsylvanians to vote for him because they were bitter and clung to religion and guns.
On balance, it is Obama who campaigns in very the manner he accuses John McCain and using the tactics he says the American people do not deserve.
Not all battles a candidate must engage in are ones of choice. Some are thrust upon him by circumstances beyond his control. Others, however, are ones which a smart candidate, as Obama surely is, selects because he thinks they will provide him an advantage, help advance a key theme, or help frame his opponent in a particular manner. As this campaign progresses and the number and intensity of the battles between Obama and McCain increases, it will be fascinating to watch the ones Obama chooses. And to consider each time Obama goes after McCain: is this just another example of the pot calling the kettle... Oh wait. Can't go there. The use of a colorful phrase might create a hue and cry as being divisively distracting. Rather, each time Obama goes after McCain, we should consider the source.