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A Closer Look at McCain's VMI Speech

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday lambasted congressional Democrats for letting political calculations guide their views on the Iraq war, remarks that came in the first of three major policy addresses aimed at reinvigorating McCain's campaign for president. (Watch a video here.)


VIDEO: At VMI, McCain Assails Democrats on Iraq. PLAY VIDEO (John Poole, washingtonpost.com)

The Fix was watching closely. And after an initial viewing and several trips through the transcript of McCain's remarks at the Virginia Military Institute, here's our recap of McCain's overt policy and political messages, and a look at the subtler signals he is trying to send to both conservative Republican primary voters and general election voters looking for a strong leader willing to rise above politics.

The Political/Policy Message

* Progress is being made: Repeatedly during the speech, which lasted a little over a half hour, McCain insisted that his recent trip to Iraq had revealed "memorable" and "measurable" progress. He cited his ability to be transported by car, not helicopter, from the Baghdad airport, the approval by Iraqi ministers for an oil sharing plan and his own meeting with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar as examples of the incremental successes coming out of the country. "While these glimmers are no guarantee of success, and though they comes early in the implementation of the new strategy, I believe they are cause for cautious optimism," McCain said.

* Caution is warranted: Time and time again, McCain made sure to let the audience know he wasn't simply offering the happy talk that got him into trouble during a stop at a Baghdad marketplace last week. "I understand the damage false optimism does to public patience and support," McCain said in a not-so-subtle reference to his experiences in Vietnam. "I learned long ago to be skeptical of official reports that are long on wishful thinking and short on substance."

* Democrats do not understand what is at stake in Iraq: McCain pulled no punches when it came to his feelings about Democrats' approach to ending the war. "Democrats in Congress and their leading candidates for president, heedless of the terrible consequences of our failure, unanimously confirmed our new commander and then insisted he be prevented from taking the action he believes is necessary to safeguard our country's interest," said McCain at one point. He added later: "In Washington, cynicism appears to be the quality most prized by those who accept defeat but not the responsibility for its consequences."

* Democratic legislation tying a timetable for withdrawal to war funding is dangerously misguided: While McCain was careful not to question the patriotism of the Democratic majorities who passed legislation calling for a timetable to remove American troops, he painted those bills as detrimental to soldiers in the field. "Responsible political leaders, statesmen, do not add to the burdens out troops carry," McCain chided, adding: "Let us honor [the soldiers] by doing all we can to ensure their sacrifices were not made in vain."

The Political Subtext

* McCain Won't Flip Flop: Given the unpopularity of the war among the American people, it's not entirely unreasonable to think that McCain would back away or seek to hedge his strong support for the surge strategy and the rightness of the U.S. mission in Iraq. He did neither on Wednesday. While his decision to stay the course (my words, not his) is likely born of personal belief rather than political calculation, McCain could well reap political dividends as well. Remember that the majority of Republican primary voters remain generally supportive of the war in Iraq and President Bush. As McCain learned in 2000, it is these Republicans --not independents or Democrats -- who almost always pick the party's presidential nominee.

* McCain Remains a Straight Talker: The Arizona senator built his reputation nationally during the 2000 campaign as that rare politician who refuses to tell you what you want to hear if it isn't the truth. He's lost some of that luster in the interim, as his willingness to sidle up to past foes (President Bush, Jerry Falwell etc.) struck some people as rankly political. But on Iraq McCain is seeking to restore his credibility as a straight talker. McCain is a bright enough politician to understand that the positions he is advocating in Iraq stand in stark contrast to the views of the majority of Americans. By backing a continuation of the war, McCain may be gambling that should he become the GOP nominee, general election voters will respect his steadfast stand even if they don't agree with him. But he's almost certainly acknowledging that he can't worry about how his position will play in a general election if he doesn't win the primary first.

* McCain Sees the Big Picture: McCain sought to make sure viewers understood both Iraq's place in the larger global war on terror as well as the implications of an immediate pullout of U.S. troops. "The war on terror, the war for the future of the Middle East and the struggle for the soul of Islam, of which the war in Iraq constitutes a key element, are bound together," McCain asserted. "Progress in one requires progress in all." Later, he added: "America has a vital interest in preventing the emergence of Iraq as a Wild West for terrorists, similar to Afghanistan before 9/11. ... The potential consequence of allowing terrorists sanctuary in Iraq is another 9/11 or worse." President Bush and Vice President Cheney have long sought to link the war in Iraq with the war on terror, but with decidedly mixed results. McCain is hoping his life experiences and engagement on the issue can produce a different outcome.

* McCain is Best Equipped to be President: It's been a rough few months for McCain. He endured several months of stories suggesting that his popularity was slipping in the public-opinion polls, then last week his campaign reported a decidedly underwhelming fundraising total for the first three months of the year. Thus, McCain needed to send a message that he remains the most influential and powerful voice in the Republican Party. The speech at VMI and two to follow in the coming weeks are an attempt to do just that. That message -- strength and solidity -- was undermined somewhat by this report that McCain has let some consultants and staffers go as part of the campaign retooling.

With only the first of the three speeches delivered so far, it's too soon to tell whether McCain will be successful at recreating momentum behind his candidacy. What do you think? The comments section awaits your views.

[The Post's Michael Shear was in Lexington for McCain's speech; Read his story here.]

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 12, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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