THEY thought they were being so slick. When the McCain campaign abruptly moved last Tuesday’s fund-raiser with President Bush from the Phoenix Convention Center to a private home, it was the next best thing to sending the loathed lame duck into the witness protection program. John McCain and Mr. Bush were caught on camera together for a mere 26 seconds, and at 9 p.m. Eastern time, safely after the networks’ evening newscasts. The two men’s furtive encounter on the Phoenix airport tarmac, as captured by a shaky, inaudible long shot on FoxNews.com, could have been culled from a surveillance video.
But for the McCain campaign, any “Mission Accomplished” high-fives had to be put on hold. That same evening Politico.com broke the news of Scott McClellan’s memoir, and it was soon All Bush All the Time in the mediasphere. Or more to the point: All Iraq All the Time, for the deceitful origins of the war in Iraq are the major focus of the former press secretary’s tell-all.
There is no news in his book, hardly the first to charge that the White House used propaganda to sell its war and that the so-called liberal media were “complicit enablers” of the con job. The blowback by the last Bush defenders is also déjà vu. The claims that Mr. McClellan was “disgruntled,” “out of the loop,” two-faced, and a “sad” head case are identical to those leveled by Bush operatives (including Mr. McClellan) at past administration deserters like Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, John DiIulio and Matthew Dowd.
So why the fuss? Mr. McClellan isn’t a sizzling TV personality, or, before now, a household name beyond the Beltway. His book secured no major prepublication media send-off on “60 Minutes” or a newsmagazine cover. But if the tale of how the White House ginned up the war is an old story, the big new news is how ferocious a hold this familiar tale still exerts on the public all these years later. We have not moved on.
Americans don’t like being lied to by their leaders, especially if there are casualties involved and especially if there’s no accountability. We view it as a crime story, and we won’t be satisfied until there’s a resolution.
That’s why the original sin of the war’s conception remains a political flash point, however much we tune out Iraq as it grinds on today. Even a figure as puny as Mr. McClellan can ignite it. The Democrats portray Mr. McCain as offering a third Bush term, but it’s a third term of the war that’s his bigger problem. Even if he locks the president away in a private home, the war will keep seeping under the door, like the blood in “Sweeney Todd.”
Mr. McCain and his party are in denial about this. “Elections are about the future” is their mantra. On “Hardball” in April, Mr. McCain pooh-poohed debate about “whether we should have invaded or not” as merely “a good academic argument.” We should focus on the “victory” he magically foresees instead.
But the large American majority that judges the war a mistake remains constant (more than 60 percent). For all the talk of the surge’s “success,” the number of Americans who think the country is making progress in Iraq is down nine percentage points since February (to 37 percent) in the latest Pew survey. The number favoring a “quick withdrawal” is up by seven percentage points (to 56 percent).
It’s extremely telling that when Gen. David Petraeus gave his latest progress report before the Senate 10 days ago, his testimony aroused so little coverage and public interest that few even noticed his admission that those much-hyped October provincial elections in Iraq would probably not happen before November (after our Election Day, wanna bet?). Contrast the minimal attention General Petraeus received for his current news from Iraq with the rapt attention Mr. McClellan is receiving for his rehash of the war’s genesis circa 2002-3, and you can see what has traction this election year.
There are other signs of Iraq’s durable political lethality as well. Looking for a bright spot in their loss of three once-safe House seats in special elections this spring, Republicans have duly noted that the Democrats who won in Louisiana and Mississippi were social “conservatives,” anti-abortion and pro-gun. They failed to notice that all three Democratic winners, including the two in the South, oppose the war. Even more remarkably, new polling in Texas finds that an incumbent Republican senator and Bush rubber stamp, John Cornyn, is only four percentage points ahead of his Democratic challenger, Rick Noriega, a fierce war critic who served in Afghanistan.
In the woe-is-us analyses by leading Republicans about their party’s travails — whether by the House G.O.P. leader John Boehner (in The Wall Street Journal) or the media strategist Alex Castellanos (in National Review) — Iraq is conspicuous by its utter absence. The Republican brand’s crisis is instead blamed exclusively on excessive spending, scandal and earmarks — it’s all the fault of Tom DeLay’s K Street Project, Jack Abramoff and that Alaskan “bridge to nowhere.”
This transcends denial; it’s group psychosis. Nowhere is this syndrome more apparent than in the profuse punditry of Karl Rove, who never cites Iraq as a problem for Mr. McCain (if he refers to it at all) and flatly assured George Stephanopoulos last Sunday that Mr. McCain has no need to make a “clean break” from Mr. Bush.
Mr. Rove is to the McCain campaign what Bill Clinton was to the Hillary Clinton campaign: a ubiquitous albatross dispensing dubious, out-of-date political advice and constantly upstaging the candidate he ostensibly supports. Like Mr. Clinton, Mr. Rove is a camera hog who puts his need to vehemently defend his own administration’s record ahead of all else. So what if he’s under subpoena by the House Judiciary Committee? He doesn’t care if he reminds voters of administration scandals or of Mr. McCain’s association with Iraq any more than Mr. Clinton cared if he reminded voters of his continued ties to suspect financial donors and the prospect of an out-of-control co-presidency.
Damaging as Mr. Clinton’s behavior was to his wife’s campaign, Iraq was worse. Mrs. Clinton could never credibly explain away her vote authorizing the war. Her repeated disingenuous attempts to fudge it ended up contaminating her credibility on other issues.
Mr. McCain’s record on Iraq is far worse than Mrs. Clinton’s. He didn’t just cast a vote but was a drumbeater for the propaganda Mr. McClellan cites, including the neocon fantasies of a newly democratic Middle East. On “Hardball” and “Meet the Press” in March 2003, Mr. McCain invoked that argument, along with the promise that Americans would be “welcomed as liberators,” to assert the war would be “one of the best things that’s happened to America.”
To cover up these poor judgments now — and questionable actions, including his public boosting of Ahmad Chalabi, then a lobbying client of the current McCain campaign guru, Charles Black — Mr. McCain is hoping that the “liberal media” will once again be complicit enablers. We’ll see. He’s also counting on the press to let him blur his record by accentuating his subsequent criticism of the war’s execution — as if the war’s execution (also criticized by countless Democrats), not its conception, was the fatal error.
His other tactic is to try to create a smoke screen by smearing Barack Obama as unpatriotic. Mr. McCain has suggested that the Democratic front-runner is the Hamas candidate and has piled on to Mr. Bush’s effort to slur Mr. Obama as an apostle of “appeasement.” A campaign ad presented Mr. McCain as “the American president Americans have been waiting for” (not to be confused, presumably, with the un-American president Al Qaeda has been waiting for).
Now Mr. McCain is chastising Mr. Obama for not having visited Iraq since 2006 — a questionable strategy, you’d think, given that Mr. McCain’s own propagandistic visit to a “safe” Baghdad market is one of his biggest embarrassments. Then again, in his frantic efforts to explain why he sided with Mr. Bush to oppose an expanded G.I. bill that the Senate passed by 75 to 22, Mr. McCain has attacked Mr. Obama for not enlisting in the military.
Besides making Mr. McCain look ever angrier next to his serene opponent, this eruption raises the question of why he chose double-standard partisanship over principle by not applying this criterion to the blunderers who took us into Iraq. Unlike Mr. Obama, who was 7 years old in 1968, Mr. Bush and company could have served in Vietnam as Mr. McCain did.
The McCain campaign may have no choice but to double down on Iraq — what other issue does the candidate have? — but it can’t count on smear tactics or journalistic and public amnesia to indefinitely enforce the McCain narrative. As the McClellan circus shows, unexpected bombshells will keeping intervening — detonating not only on the ground in Iraq but also in Washington, where more Bush alumni with reputations to salvage may yet run for cover about what went down in 2002-3.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald would have it, we will be borne back ceaselessly into the past. Or so we will be as long as Americans continue to die in Iraq and as long as politicians like Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton refuse to accept responsibility for their roles, major and minor, in abetting this national tragedy.