Ex Post McCaino

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The McCain campaign is hitting back hard against Democratic criticism of his “not that important” quote this morning on Today. But as often is the case with McCain, the explanations of what he said are even sillier than the original statement.

According to the McCain camp, the original clip that we published this morning doesn’t contain the full context of the remarks. And they’ve posted a longer version, which doesn’t appear to change the meaning in any meaningful way. But decide for yourself.

Their other point is that McCain isn’t saying that bringing the troops home isn’t that important, he’s saying that precisely when they come home isn’t that important and that reducing the number of casualties is more important than the precise date when they come home. But this highly strained argument seems premised on the assumption that journalists should report not what you say but your own highly generous after-the-fact interpretation of what you said.

I would say that in the context of Iraq when they come home and whether they come home are actually inextricably combined. Presumably US military personnel won’t be in Iraq 20,000 years from now. At some point they’ll come home. But staying for many decades is, in the context of most of our lives, the same as staying forever. On the latter point McCain doesn’t say that reducing casualties is more important than getting people home. He’s saying one is his focus and the other isn’t very important.

Sometimes these references by McCain are treated as gaffes but they’re not. This is what McCain believes: that we should have a long-term troop presence in Iraq to guarantee the survival of a pro-U.S. government and assert power in the region. That’s not a crazy position. That’s the position of the current administration. That’s why we’re currently trying to secure an agreement with the Iraqis to ratify that goal. The problem isn’t that McCain’s position is incomprehensible. It’s just not popular. Most Americans think reducing casualties is important too. But they’d like to do both — reduce casualties and leave too.

The problem for the McCain campaign is that he keeps stumbling into clear statements of his actual policy, which is close to lethal since the vast majority of Americans disagree with his policy and Iraq is virtually the only thing he’s running on. The context the McCain campaign keeps trying to put forward after the fact is what they wished he’d said rather than what he did. And even that, when you push deep, isn’t that different from McCain’s actual policy, which is that he doesn’t think we should be leaving Iraq for years to come, most likely decades.

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