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McCain Says He's the One to Lead--And Beat Clinton

McCain at Franklin Pierce University with former New Hampshire governor Walter Peterson. (Greg Eiman/Fitzwater Connection/Pierce Media Group).

Sunday night speeches rarely get much attention but the address John McCain delivered in New Hampshire last night deserves a closer look. It was his most cogent argument for why he should be the Republican nominee and a blueprint for how he would run against Hillary Clinton, if she were the Democratic candidate.

McCain couched his criticisms of the Democratic front-runner in civil tones, eschewing some of the hotter rhetoric coming forth from other Republican candidates and particularly from GOP partisans anxious to demonize her. "I intend this to be a respectful debate," McCain said. "She and I disagree over America's direction, and it is a serious disagreement. But I don't doubt her ability to lead this country where she thinks it should go."

That said, McCain proceeded to draw a series of bright and highly unflattering distinctions between the two of them -- in their worldview, in their approach to government's role in health care and the economy and especially on two of the most difficult issues likely to face the next president, Iraq and Iran.

McCain promised a respectful debate, but he was scornful of Clinton's position on Iraq. He implied that she had voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war because of polls and that she has abandoned that position because the war has become highly unpopular.

"I wouldn't surrender when we can still succeed, and accept the terrible consequences that would ensue, because I feared the polls more than history's judgment," he said, according to the prepared text of his remarks.

McCain recalled, critically, Clinton's comment to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, during congressional testimony in September, when she said that his optimistic assessment of progress on the ground required "the willful suspension of disbelief."

Instead, McCain said, it is Clinton who has suspended belief in the face of positive reports about the effect of the troop surge policy in Iraq. He accused her of succumbing to "her rivals and the fringe of her party" in allowing her to be jerked "toward a position she knows is irresponsible."

McCain stacked up his record against hers -- highlighting his opposition to the policies of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his advocacy for the surge policy proposed by President Bush and implemented this year by Petraeus. In contrast to Clinton, McCain suggested that he had taken the honorable but more difficult course.

"I took abuse from members of my own party -- some of it pretty tough -- for doing so," he said. "And I stuck by it knowing it could hurt my chances for the presidency. I did it for one reason: I would rather lose an election than stay silent and watch my country lose a war."

On Iran, he suggested that Clinton is mostly confused. He asserted that she once ruled out unconditional negotiations with the Iranians but now is willing to talk without preconditions. McCain said he would pursue vigorous diplomacy with others to apply pressure on the Iranians. In reality, it is not clear there is as much difference here as McCain suggests, but he portrayed his potential rival as naive if she were to follow the course he said she favors.

On other issues, McCain drew a contrast between his long record of fighting government waste against what he said is Clinton's belief in big government. "She'll have Washington assume more of your responsibilities and raise your taxes to pay for it," he said. "She won't address seriously the fiscal crisis of Social Security and Medicare or if she does she'll let congressional Democrats convince her to raise your taxes."

McCain was more circumspect about his plans for the two big entitlement programs, promising only to fix them without raising taxes. That leaves the choices as either potentially painful in terms of reduced benefits or fanciful through gimmickry and sleight-of-hand. He said he would, if Congress balked, force an up-or-down vote on his proposals. Bush learned on Social Security how hard that can be.

McCain said he and Clinton would have a major argument over health care -- as would any of the Republican candidates. Clinton favors universal coverage that would include a mandate for all individuals to purchase insurance. McCain said he would make health care "more accessible by making it more affordable."

McCain called hers a big government plan, while Clinton has argued that she would keep the bulk of the current system of private insurance in place. She and other Democrats have argued that Republicans are not serious about insuring everyone and are not willing to put enough additional money into the system to achieve real success.

There were other areas of disagreement, from judicial appointments to reforming and expanding the military, which McCain cited in his speech at Franklin Pierce University. Boiled down to its essence, he said he offers one direction and she offers an alternative that he believes "is absolutely wrong for America and wrong for the world."

What McCain said about himself, however, may be the more important part of the speech, given that his campaign still faces serious obstacles en route to the nomination. Without speaking about his GOP rivals, McCain portrayed himself as the most equipped to deal with a hostile world and the conservative with the best chance of defeating Clinton.

"On matters of war and peace," he said, "I offer Americans my experience, my personal familiarity with the tragedy of war, deep involvement in all of the national security issues of the last two decades and steadfast conviction that America cannot afford to relinquish its leadership of the world and the world can't afford it either."

McCain's speech came hours before Rudy Giuliani was to launch a new television ad extolling his experience in crisis management as without parallel in the presidential race. The Arizona senator begged to differ. "No other candidate," he said, "has my experience or the judgment it informs."

McCain must spend the next eight weeks repeating that argument over and over again as he campaigns to win the New Hampshire primary. Should he succeed, he might yet have the opportunity to demonstrate whether it is possible to run both a courteous and vigorous general election campaign. As he showed on Sunday, the differences between the parties are huge and the stakes high. The choice, he said, "couldn't be a bigger one."

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 19, 2007; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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