Republican political strategists have long said privately what Republican candidates for President only hinted at publicly. No one can win the White House in 2008 by campaigning to continue an unending war in Iraq.
"The sentence has to have the word 'leaving' in it," said Grover Norquist, the influential Republican operative, at a breakfast meeting in June of 2007. "Doesn't mean you have to leave tomorrow, doesn't mean you have to surrender, doesn't mean you have to cut and run, but the articulation of the policy needs to be clear to the American people that we are not staying there indefinitely and that there is a 'doing something' and a 'leaving.' "
At the time, the major Republican candidates for President, save John McCain, had already begun to dull the edges on their support for President Bush's war policy. When asked about the war, Mike Huckabee would talk about the strain on the Arkansas National Guard. Mitt Romney would say he wanted the troops home "as soon as possible." Rudy Giuliani speculated openly that the so-called surge might fail, saying "we have to be ready for that."
McCain, by contrast, stood firm and alone. When asked about the war, he tried to turn the obvious political liability into a personal strength, a statement of character more than policy. "I would rather lose an election than lose a war," went his catchphrase. The strategy worked well in the primaries, among a mostly Republican electorate. But it did not give McCain the ability to escape the gravitational pull of the general election. Just a couple of months after winning the Republican nomination, McCain laid out his vision for a light at the end of the tunnel.
"By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and -women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom," McCain said in May, during a speech about his goals for his first term in office. "The Iraq war has been won."
Flash forward two months, and the national debate has finally caught up with political reality. It now focuses on the end of the Iraq conflict on "timetables," "timelines" or, in the Orwellian Newspeak of the White House, "joint aspirational time horizons." Whatever the language and whatever translations are used, the conversation is changing. Both the White House and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, now publicly talk about temporal goals. Last week al-Maliki even declared a preference for Obama's 16-month redeployment plan though his spokesman subsequently issued a vague, none-too-convincing clarification stating that the Prime Minister had been misunderstood. In response to al-Maliki's controversial statement to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, McCain's campaign did its best to salvage the situation, declaring that these new discussions about withdrawal were in fact a victory for McCain's strategy, not a sign of weakness or worse, an endorsement of his opponent's position, as Obama's campaign was quick to claim.
"The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong," said McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann in a statement released on Saturday. "We would not be in a position discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama's views had prevailed."
These shifts in the debate should not blur the substantive differences between the McCain and Obama strategies for Iraq. But they do make clear that those differences are not black and white but rather different shades of gray. For McCain, the first priority remains a stable Iraqi nation-state, and he is willing to risk ever more American blood and treasure over the coming years in that quest. For Obama, the first priority is an exit from the country, and he is willing to risk civil chaos in Iraq and a loss of American influence in the region.
But neither candidate is purely ideological in his views. They are both willing to grapple with external realities, even if they would prefer to sidestep the potential trade-offs of their respective positions. When pressed, Obama will admit that the U.S. has a military responsibility to make sure Iraq "doesn't collapse," allowing that his timelines can be adjusted. Similarly, McCain will admit that there is only so far any leader can push against American public opinion, allowing for the possibility of withdrawal before total victory. "When the American people don't support a war," McCain said last year, "then we aren't able to maintain a foreign endeavor."
With Election Day looming less than four months away, however, those substantive differences have begun to take a backseat to the candidates' efforts to score political points. Strategists in both camps believe the Iraq issue will be won more by disqualifying their opponent's foreign policy credentials than by arguing the specifics of any military plan. On Saturday, the Obama campaign released an extensive memorandum arguing that McCain is now shifting his position on the redeployment of troops in Iraq, among other issues, by welcoming the discussion of time horizons. "Will Senator McCain shift his position on redeploying troops from Iraq?" asked Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
McCain's campaign, meanwhile, has been hammering Obama in a new negative attack ad that accuses the Illinois Senator of shirking his Senate oversight responsibilities on Afghanistan and voting against a funding bill for troops in Iraq. (Obama's vote was a protest against the war policy, not a rejection of the troops.) And McCain surrogate Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman appeared on Fox News Sunday to hammer Obama's past opposition to the current military effort in Iraq. "The fact is that if Barack Obama's policy on Iraq had been implemented, Barack Obama could not go to Iraq today," Lieberman said. "It would not be safe."
According to the McCain campaign, the debate should focus on which candidate has had the judgment to achieve the recent security gains in Iraq, and which candidate will leave Iraq in a more stable condition. According to the Obama crowd, the argument should focus on which candidate had the right judgment about the initial invasion of Iraq and which candidate will pull out American troops sooner.
In the short term, the recent shifts to a debate over withdrawal can be seen as a win for Obama, who is most identified with the strategy. But the Republican playbook is also strong, and the blurring of positions on Iraq could ultimately help McCain. Once both candidates begin to discuss leaving, the debate shifts away from who is for or against continuing the unpopular war to who is best suited to lead the nation's military in such a challenging retrenchment.
As Norquist pointed out last year, Richard Nixon used this strategy with great success at the end of the Vietnam War. "He ran in '72 as the guy who was leaving, and [Democratic candidate George] McGovern decided he wanted to surrender," Norquist said. "Leaving beat surrendering." In the coming months, the political landscape is now primed for McCain to attempt the same argument.