McCain blogger conference call

McCain starts talking about his trip to Iraq.

The troops are happy with the success that we have achieved. They know that this strategy has been succeeding. In Anbar things are quiet. In Baghdad, things are better. … Petraeus believes that there could be an uptick in al-Qaeda activity because they are on the run. … How anyone can ignore the situation on the ground is beyond me. The Democrats continue to try to cut off the funding … in total disregard of the facts on the ground. … If we continue to make the progress we have made in the lase couple of months in the next 7 or 8 months … We should not be dictated by a schedule for troop withdrawal

Questions:

Bull Dog Pundit. Asks about "economic philosophy" and "judgment". Tax cuts and boxing (that’s the judgment question). McCain picks Mayweather as the boxing champion. (huh?) On taxes:

The major reason why I imposed [the Bush tax cuts] was to put a control on spending. For the next one, it was clear that we were going into a War in Iraq… I am for tax cuts of all kinds. … There hasn’t been a real income increase for lower income Americans, like there has been for more wealthy Americans. … The majority of our problem is out of control spending. … I believe in lower taxes

Jen Rubin . Campaign questions. "National poll numbers have risen, but … Iowa? Do you still intend to compete fully in Iowa?" Question on Romney’s Muslim-gate

We have a lot of work to do. … I am against ethanol subsidies … We have an excellent ground game. … We are struggling in the polls …  We’ll keep working out there. … All of us want to be the comeback kid. …

On Gov. Romney’s comment about the Muslims, my only comment is that we need to take the best qualified people. … If they are qualified to serve in the Armed Forces then are qualified to serve in any position …. Governor Romney’s appointment of a judge … best qualified people

Michael Goldfarb about the funding running out on Iraq.

It can inhibit our long-term planning and long-term equipping. … If you throw everything up in the air … it has ripple effects that can be dangerous. … You might want to mention that the Defense Authorization Bill is hung up in conference … because of the Hate Crimes Bill. … And the Wounded Warrior Bill. … It still hasn’t been signed into law. That’s disgraceful.

Matt Lewis asks about Bill Clinton’s line about Iraq.

I don’t understand former President Bill Clinton … It is all co-incidental. … What this is going to lead to is an examination of his handling of Osama Bin Laden, North Korea, etc. … I am sure that it is all coindicence that this is happening as Barack Obama closes on Hillary in Iowa.

Ed Morrissey asks about the White House’s release/agreement with Maliki on troop draw down:

I was briefed by Crocker and Petraeus while I was in Iraq. This agreement is basically an extension of the status quo … After a year, we would revert to a kind of status of forces agreement that we have with Korea and Germany.

Doug Lambert. Lincoln-Douglass style of debate between nominees of two parties

I would favor such a format. Sometimes campaigns agree on a concept, but then disagree on a format. … There are stark differences between me and Senator Clinton, and I intend to draw them. … Senator Clinton is a liberal Democrat, and I am conservative Republican.

Liz Mair asks about electability in Washington:

Environment … military … I am not an expert on Washington’s electoral history, but they like an independent streak … And the fact that I campaigned there heavily in 2000.

Jim Geraghty follows up on Rubin. Would it be helpful to have a high-ranking Muslim

It would be helpful to call on people in the Muslim community. … Positions should be dictated by [quality] … Bring in experts.

Follow up is Zalmay Khalilizad. Would a person of that expertise have a place in a McCain cabinet?

Sure. But he was hired for his experience. I would add that Ambassador Crocker is also highly qualified. … I don’t think that the decision would rest on that … Qualifications are enhanced by ones knowledge of the Muslim religion and the Middle East. …

Philip Klein asks about the Annapolis Conference:

I have not heard as much about it as a I should ….

James Joyner. "The surge is working as you pointed out… What hope do you have the political side?"

There is oil sharing. … They thought that they could get this reverse-deBaathification done. The Sadr people immediately raised hell. … There was never a Thomas Jefferson in Iraq.

[I have to run to lunch. i will come back and fill in links in a bit.]

Economy most important issue?

Last week at Blog World Expo, a fascinating discussion broke out. Jerome Armstrong from MyDD and Markos from DailyKos, among other lefties, argued that Iraq was going to be a driving issue. They, furthermore, argued that success wouldn’t matter, because the failure was the initial decision, and Americans will stop paying attention The righties, Hugh Hewitt, Rob Bluey, John Hinderaker, and others argued that success would matter. Dean Barnett seemed to argue that it should but wouldn’t.

My sense is that the lefties are wrong. Iraq will come out of the headlines if we really start to succeed. The historical evidence provides the scenario. In 1952, Eisenhower ran on, more or less, pulling out of Korea. Eventually, after much wrangling, the troops stayed. Over 50 years later, 30k+ troops remain. It is clear that a similar scenario arises for the Dems. They know that it is irresponsible to completely pull out, in spite of their base. Dem presidential staffers admit to numbers in the range of 100k. They are even saying so in debates.

One wonders if, on a certain level, the Dems are going to mirror Eisenhower in this respect. He wanted to keep the GOP from embracing isolationism. There is little risk that Clinton would embrace the sort of irresponsible isolationism that so much of the Democratic base would seem to like, and that the 50s Taftians so dearly wanted.

That’s the good news for America. The bad news for the GOP is that once Iraq goes from being the top headline, the economy is the next issue. And, indeed, with casualties falling, Americans are focusing on the economy. As the Economist’s Democracy in America blog notes:

A MILESTONE of sorts was reached this month when a Newsweek poll showed that for the first time in years Iraq was not the top issue influencing prospective American voters. The economy had surfaced as the major issue on voters’ minds.

Fareed Zakaria quotes the poll:

In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, the economy now tops Iraq as the issue that voters say will most influence their choice for president, 22 percent to 19 percent. For two years, Iraq dominated these kinds of surveys. Only a month ago, in a CBS News poll, 28 percent of respondents wanted Iraq to be the campaign’s most-discussed issue, while the economy came in second at 16 percent.

Now, it is not clear to me that this is a huge win for Republicans, given the housing problems.  But Iraq is clearly coming out of the headlines. Which might mean that the Democrats have some space to make responsible decisions, if actually elected.

Two new Iraq talking points?

Yesterday, the Biden-Brownback plan passed the Senate with 75 votes. For the first time, someone on both the left and the right can claim genuine progress on pulling out troops.

As Marc Ambinder points out, this is a good talking point for Biden,  where Joe Biden is counting that liberal activists in Iowa are less extreme than people think.

Sam Brownback, the other half of Biden-Brownback, is counting on Republican activists being less pro-war than public opinion holds. There is polling evidence to support this.

Interesting strategy. We will see if it catches on.

Al Qaeda created “the civil war” in Iraq

Update: Rob Bluey got me the video and a proper quote.

I was driving home from a meeting at church, and C-SPAN radio was playing in my car. Michael O’Hanlon was speaking (live) at Heritage. O’Hanlon said:

They are the ones who created the civil war. A deliberate strategy by Zarqawi got us to where we are.

That strikes me as one of the clearest and most important points. The other is what happens if that civil war takes hold. The last time that Al Qaeda got to play in a civil war, we got Afghanistan. Imagine Afghanistan between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and sitting on oil.

Can you really walk away from that?

Thoughts on McCain conference call

I got into the call a minute or so late. Several things occurred to me.

First, John McCain is not as tired as he used to be. He is clearly energized by this fight. He talked about being on the bus with his POW buddies. That seems important for him psychologically.

Second, that image strikes me as very powerful. This is all re-invoking the battles of the 70s. McCain and a bunch of POWs saying, "Don’t let them do to us what they did in Viet Nam," is a remarkable idea. Especially in the older Iowa Caucus crowd, that contrast and invocation should be a powerful memory.

Third, McCain is the most comfortable of all the candidates on either side in simply talking about the war. If I were the campaign, I would make sure that these sessions are videoed and available online. These will probably be some of the best material that press and activists can see on what is actually going on.

Fourth, I think that McCain understands how tortured Republicans are on this. I asked him how people in Iowa were responding, given the polling that indicates that Republicans in Iowa seem very open to a withdrawal. The combination of POWs, a call to honor, the demand that we not lose, and an open discussion of wanting to get out, but not in vain… That, again, strikes me as a good way to yank on the heart strings of Iowans.

McCain Iraq blogger conference call

"If you are not tough enough to repudiate a scurrilous attack, I don’t know how you are tough enough to be President."

Matt Lewis. He asks about where the other GOP candidates are on the surge.

"I don’t pay that much attention to the other campaigns. The reason that I responded to governor Romney is that he said ‘apparently’, etc. … I am the only one who repudiated Rumsfeld’s strategy." He follows up with "Is it the responsibility of a Republican candidate? Are they off-base with them not getting behind it?" McCain responds, "I’d like to see Republican candidates more engaged and more supportive. Obviously, the Democrats are going to try again to force withdrawal."

Jennifer Rubin. "Do you sense a stiffening of the spine?"

 "I think that was helpful. … Success on the ground has been helpful as well. … Proud of the President as well. I am glad the President went to Baghdad. We do need to put more pressure on the Maliki government."

Paul Mirengoff. "Do you think that committing to withdrawal is an optimum strategy?"

"I think that one of the things that he’s saying is that the Iraqi military will be able to be more engaged. … There are problems within the Pentagon with this surge."

Betsy Newmark of Betsy’s Page. Her student asks, "If you are elected PResident, but the public is still opposed to the war, what can you do …?"

"You have to show success on the ground. … I think the next six months are going to be critical. We are going to have to show enough success or we will be forced out."

Follow up, "How will history regard GWB’s Presidency?" McCain responds that it will depend on Iraq, and he compared with Truman.

Robert Bluey . "What would you tell the American people tomorrow in President Bush’s speech?" McCain responds, as he has, that he would give more details. He also says that he would admit failure. "You have to admit mistakes and show them where we are succeeding. Share their frustrations. Share their sorrow." Followup on Iran. "Is the admistration doing enough to hilghlight Iran?" McCain: "I would highlight it more"

Jim Addison. He asked whether the Dems are just mouthing talking points. McCain says that the Dems have just made up their minds.

Phil Klein from AmSpec. He asks about the process. McCain responds:

"The first of October is the beginning of the fiscal year. It should disturb all Americans that Harry Reid is putting this controversial legislation on the authorization bill. … Reid is negotiating with some Republicans to act on a resolution. … I know I should be out fiundraising and campaigning. This is far more important … I think it is that serious. "

Doug Lambert. He asks why we don’t take out Al-Sadr.

"Well, I agree with you. When they first had a warrant out for his arrest, I told [the generals], ‘Go get this guy.’ … Now it is very tough. He bounces back and forth between Iran. … "

Follow up about the Iranian border. "You might see American troops on the Iranian border. … Sadr announced a 6-week moratorium"

Jim Geraghty from NRO. A bunch of questions. "Should Dems return donations from MoveOn?" "Sure, but they should denounce it?" "Do you think that the hearings addressed the concerns of any wavering lawmakers?" "I hope so. … I could not have asked for a better performance from either of them."

I asked about what the Iowans at his events were thinking, given the polling that indicates that IA caucus-goers want an early withdrawal. "They are interested in getting out. I am interested in getting out. … I also think that Americans don’t want to lose. … like Harry Reid. … You get through some of the prism."

Matt Lewis again. He asks about polling. "Do you have your mojo back?" McCain responds that:

"We had some serious problems … most of them were budgetary. … Good turnout at townhalls in Iowa. … Better in New Hampshire. … Very anti-war in Iowa… More anti-war in New Hampshire. … Strong popular support for the war in South Carolina."

Obama’s troop levels

It has been clear that the anti-war left is quite angry with the establishment of the Democratic Party. Today, Barack Obama tried to rally the anti-war left to his side. He wants to withdraw combat troops. From USA Today’s blog:

"The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year — now," Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama plans to say this afternoon, according to excerpts sent to reporters this morning by his campaign.

What does combat troops mean? Earlier in the year, I was told by an Obama staffer that their plan invovled about 100k troops staying in Iraq. General Patraeus has a picture (that plenty have pointed out has problems). But in that picture, "Leading" maps approximately on to "combat troops".  Perhaps about half of the 170k in Iraq now. So Obama is proposing to start removing troops now… And stopping at 100k.

How different is that really from the Patreaus plan?

On a deeper level, what is the anti-war left going to do when they realize that even the anti-war top-tier candidate is closer to Bush than the anti-war left? While the Republicans have plenty of problems going into 2008, the Democrats have a big one. They are continuously out of touch with their base on Iraq.

On a deeper level, it is going to be harder and harder to tell the difference between Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney on these issues, as Jim Geraghty has pointed out. If Romney is the nominee, which is, at least, very plausible, what are the Democrats going to do if they can’t differentiate on Iraq?

Thoughts before the spin room

John McCain did well with the national security focus. Mitt Romney always does best with a domestic security focus. I suspect that the commenters will say that McCain won.

I was going to say that I am not sure that his position on Iraq was going to resonate with voters. But Frank Luntz’s room made clear that it resonated with them.

In any case, on the spectrum from Iraq being the focus to not, McCain wins the more you focus on Iraq. Giuliani wins the closer you get to Iraq not being the focus.

I also thought that Mike Huckabee had a great moment with the Ron Paul fight. It was a freebie, but it was, perhaps, too insidery to be really be a sustainable moment on its own.

A Romney representative on Iraq

I’m at the debate media room at the GOP debate. A Romney representative says that Mitt Romney’s position on Iraq is nothing new and that no candidate believes that they will keep troops for a long time.

I am not sure that that is true. After all, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama advisers recognize, at least in private, that their plans require 100k+ troops to stay in the country for a long time. It is not clear that Romney would accept a formulation like that.

The Romney representative had no response to the pushback that Romney was the first person to state this.