Both candidates took Sunday-show turns today. Noam blogged below on Obama's smooth "Meet the Press" ride. McCain for his part did ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, with somewhat more mixed results. I've never found McCain terribly appealing in the talk-show format. You would think he can channel more of the freewheeling humor that wins him such love on the Straight Talk Express, but he often seems stiff and irritable, as was the case today. (McCain seemed too stressed even to find real levity in the appearance of his dogs on the interview set.)
More specifically, as you'd expect, Iraq was at the heart of the interview. Stephanopoulos opened by pressing McCain on his weird statement Friday that Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan "is a pretty good timetable." After first denying that he'd used the word, McCain seemed to argue, in essence, that what he meant was bringing troops home in that time would be nice, so long as conditions on the ground allow it. McCain clearly doesn't think they will, however, and argued that the critical difference between himself and Obama on Iraq remains that "the timetable is dictated, not by a artificial date, but by the conditions on the ground, the conditions of security." I do think this is what McCain meant all along, (although as one who administered a beating to Mitt Romney before the Florida primary for another vague use of the word "timetable," McCain enjoys little high ground here).
As Noam noted, Obama sought to move Tom Brokaw's questions about his opposition to the surge back to the original decision to go to war. Likewise, McCain steered George Stephaphanopoulos to his own support for the surge. What was most interesting here was McCain's apparent contention that the surge was a more important test of national security decisionmaking than the decision to go to war itself
MCCAIN: When the decision had to be made whether to adopt the strategy of the surge, he said it wouldn't work, it would increase sectarian violence. He said all those things that made it acceptable to the left of his party.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But there was a fundamental difference about the original decision to go to war. He said it would inflame the Muslim world, it would become a recruitment tool for al Qaeda. You said, and you wrote, that it would lessen antipathy in the Muslim world, and that we'd be greeted as liberators. Wasn't Senator Obama right about that?
MCCAIN: I don't believe so. We were greeted as liberators. We mishandled the war for nearly four years. We mishandled it in a way that was so harmful that I stood up against it. I said it wouldn't work. I said we had to have a new strategy, and I was criticized for being disloyal -- disloyal to Republicans.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You also said many times that the strategy was the right strategy.
MCCAIN: I said that Saddam Hussein caused a -- imposed a threat to the United States of America and our security. And the Oil for Food scandal, the $12 billion he was skimming, the fact that he had said that he had in operation and he wanted to have weapons of mass destruction, the fact that this society that he ruled in such a brutal fashion was really awful. And he did pose a long-term threat to the security of the United States of America. But that's a job for the historians.
When the crucial time came as to whether we were going to leave Iraq and lose, or stay and do the very unpopular thing of 30,000 additional troops -- asking young Americans to make the sacrifice -- he was wrong, I was right. That was the crucial point... [emphasis added]
Even though McCain doesn't concede that he was wrong about the war, it's striking to hear him write off fundamental questions about the invasion of Iraq as "a job for the historians," then declare the tactical issue of the surge "the crucial time." Seems to me the crucial time was March 20, 2003 and the preceding weeks and months.
Something missing from today's interview--perhaps it was taped before yesterday evening?--was a detailed conversation about McCain's striking new ad attacking Obama for cancelling his scheduled visit to see wounded US troops in Germany. Stephanopoulos asked McCain about Obama's decision not to see the troops, drawing a derisive response. But the ad, with its sneering tone (and baseless charge that Obama cancelled because "the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras") demands of McCain an explanation of how it squares with his pledge to run a civil campaign. Specifically, I'd love to know just what McCain thinks Obama's non-visit proves about his opponent's ability to lead the country.
Other highlights included McCain's incredibly unconvincing defense of his gas-tax holiday--when pressed on how he'd stop oil companies from pocketing the savings as nearly every economist predicts, McCain simply asserted "we wouldn't let it happen... we'd penalize them if necessary" (do McCain's free-marketeer advisors know that? Is he now in favor of the Democratic windfall tax proposal?)--and his support for an anti-affirmative action ballot measure in Arizona, a reversal of his past position, says Jonathan Martin, and the target of a "disappointed" Obama response here.
All in all, I saw virtually nothing here that will help McCain reboot the race after his decidedly horrible past week.