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Mccain's Advisors Think He's A Lightweight

The New York Times has a great article today about the battle between neoconservatives and realists to win John McCain's favor. The most interesting passage might be this:

"One of the chief concerns of the pragmatists is that Mr. McCain is susceptible to influence from the neoconservatives because he is not as fully formed on foreign policy as his campaign advisers say he is, and that while he speaks authoritatively, he operates too much off the cuff and has not done the deeper homework required of a presidential candidate."

That's quite an indictment, coming from his own supporters no less! 

I mention this because McCain has made foreign policy knowledge his main line of attack against Barack Obama. The idea that Barack Obama doesn't understand simple facts about foreign policy is the basic frame for all of McCain's criticisms. Mccain recently declared, "Senator Obama doesn't understand national security issues." Following the Wisconsin primary, when Obama's nomination became virtually inevitable, McCain asked, "Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan?” (Of course, this is a lie, but that's beside the point.) Almost every McCain shot at Obama tries to reinforce the idea that Obama is a foreign policy ignoramus.

Of course McCain is the one who tends to bungle basic facts. He has repeatedly confused the basic Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide that's absolutely fundamental to grasping the Middle East. Obama, meanwhile, may be inexperienced, but he's extremely smart and really has done his homework. He's impressive speaking about foreign policy both in formal speeches and off the cuff. McCain's attacks are a case of the pot calling the kettle a pot.

Aside from that, I think this line of attack represents a huge strategic blunder for McCain. Even if it works, McCain will drive expectations for Obama's understanding of foreign policy so low that he can't help but exceed them. Indeed, the most likely outcome is that the two candidates will debate, and Obama will prove himself as knowledgeable, or probably more knowledgeable, at which point Obama will clear the bar to be commander-in-chief and McCain's best issue will be gone.

If McCain's campaign was smart, they'd do what Republicans usually do, which is to frame the question not as one of knowledge but one of conviction -- that Democrat may have lots of book learning, but I'm the only one who understands in my gut how evil the bad guys really are. Instead, McCain is defining the issue in such a way that he's almost bound to fail.

Update: A Republican source with whom I have spoken takes issue with the sourcing of the article in question, and lack of on-the-record comment by pragmatists other than Lawrence Eagleburger who are advising John McCain. I don't find the article questionable, because presidential campaign advisers are extremely reluctant to let their names appear in the newspaper, but this Republican asked that their objections be noted and I see no reason not to share their opinion. I also find the fact that the GOP is objecting to be notable in and of itself--I don't get emails from GOP officials very often (or, for that matter, from Democratic officials). I would surmise they see the Times story as highly damaging to the McCain narrative, and thus set out to push back quickly against any commentary taking note of it.

--Jonathan Chait