Morning Cheat Sheet
McCain's Rewrite of His Anti-Rumsfeld Script
By Peter Baker
As he gets closer to the Republican nomination, John McCain has been trying to balance his unqualified support for the Iraq war by reminding audiences that he was also a tough critic of the way it was managed until President Bush finally changed strategies a year ago. In recent weeks, McCain has gone so far as to tell audiences that he was "the only one" who called for then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation.
The only trick is he never did, at least not publicly. The senator from Arizona was a tough critic of Rumsfeld and more than once declared that he had no confidence in the Pentagon chief in the two years before Bush finally dumped him in November 2006. But even as he was criticizing Rumsfeld, McCain typically stopped short of calling for the defense secretary to step down on the grounds that it was up to the president to decide who served in his
McCain has rewritten that history a couple of times lately. While campaigning in Fort Myers, Fla., on Jan. 26, he told a crowd: "In the conflict that we're in, I'm the only one that said we have to abandon the Rumsfeld strategy -- and Rumsfeld -- and adopt a new strategy." Four days later during a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., aired on CNN, McCain said, "I'm the only one that said that Rumsfeld had to go."
A McCain spokesman acknowledged yesterday that was not correct. "He did not call for his resignation," said the campaign's Brian Rogers. "He always said that's the president's prerogative." Asked specifically about the senator's statements in Florida and California, Rogers said, "I think he's really just pointing out that he's the only one who really called out the Rumsfeld strategy, and that is certainly true again and again."
McCain's enhanced version of his opposition to Rumsfeld has come as he begins to wrap up the Republican nomination and pivot toward the general election, where his embrace of the war presumably will not prove as popular as it has been with the Republican base. McCain's false account has been unwittingly incorporated into the narrative he is selling by some news organizations, including The Washington Post, that have repeated his assertion that he called for Rumsfeld's resignation, even though he did not. Liberal bloggers and advocacy organizations such as Media Matters have pointed out the discrepancy.
It's not clear why McCain would feel any need to overstate his public position on Rumsfeld given that he already had a pretty clear record of hostility toward the former Pentagon chief. The senator grilled the defense secretary fiercely during hearings into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, publicly assailed him for not sending enough troops to Iraq in the first place and regularly critiqued his stewardship of the war. McCain openly derided some of Rumsfeld's more memorable statements, such as when the defense secretary dismissed insurgents as merely a bunch of "dead-enders" and brushed off widespread looting following the fall of Saddam Hussein by saying, "Stuff happens."
Several months after Bush fired Rumsfeld, McCain gave perhaps his harshest assessment. "I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history," he told an audience in February last year.
At the heart of McCain's case against Rumsfeld was the failure to send more troops to Iraq from the start. In 2004, McCain estimated that an additional 100,000 troops were needed to pacify the country. Ultimately, he became one of the biggest proponents of Bush's decision in January 2007 to send what would become an additional 30,000 troops.
McCain lately has pointed repeatedly to that position as an example of his willingness to stand against the political winds for what he thinks is right. At the time, it was highly unpopular, but in the end, he has benefited politically from the success the extra troops have had in helping to tamp down violence in Iraq. As security has improved, McCain has claimed vindication and polls have shown that the public is more optimistic about the situation on the ground there, even if most Americans remain just as opposed to the war.
For McCain, even with the security gains on the ground in recent months, support for the war may prove to be a powerful drag on his chances in the fall, according to analysts, and so it appears critical to his strategy to at least keep a distance from the earlier Bush-Rumsfeld strategy that by all accounts failed. Democrats plan to try to wrap Iraq around McCain's neck regardless of the nuance, pointing to any number of optimistic statements of his own that later proved unfounded.
McCain is hardly the only one to revise his earlier position when it comes to the war. Former president Bill Clinton claimed last fall that he had "opposed Iraq from the beginning," a far more unequivocal characterization than his nuanced statements at the time suggested. But such rhetorical liberties are especially risky for a candidate who premises his campaign on straight talk.
Posted at 10:06 AM ET on Feb 14, 2008
Morning Cheat Sheet
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