I watched last week’s debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin on CNN, where they show you the audience reaction among a group of undecided voters to what the candidates are saying. I was surprised to see that every time Palin attacked Barack Obama for being insufficiently militant in his policies toward Iraq or Iran or in Afghanistan, the needle of opinion turned sharply negative. That suggests to me that a paradox is at work: while the public has become more supportive of the surge in Iraq, and still narrowly believes that John McCain would be better at handling the war, McCain’s support for the war and for “victory” in Iraq is hurting not helping his campaign.
I know it doesn’t show up directly in the polls, but that may be because the polls don’t ask the right questions. You could see something similar happening in the 1992 election between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The elder Bush, unlike his son, had a glowing record in foreign policy. He had, after all, engineered the ouster of Saddam Hussein from in the Gulf War. His popularity had shot up afterwards, and Bush (like McCain this year) staked his claim for presidency on his experience in foreign policy and his opponent’s lack of experience. But the ploy backfired.
In 1991, soon after the war’s conclusion, the economy began turning downward, just as it began to do this year. Voters didn’t just begin worrying about the economy. They began to question whether in trumpeting his foreign policy claims, the elder Bush was not too concerned with foreign policy and insufficiently concerned with what was going to inside the United States. That was dramatized by Bush’s ignorance of what groceries cost.
In September 1991, columnist and former Reagan administration official Pat Buchanan, who would later challenge Bush in the primaries, put this question about Bush’s priorities into words in an op-ed for the Washington Post. Wrote Buchanan, “The incivility and brutality of our cities, the fading away of the Reagan Boom, the rise of ethnic hatred, are concentrating the minds of Americans on their own society. What doth it profit a nation if it gain the whole world, and lose its own soul?” In the general election, independent candidate Ross Perot would pose a similar question to Bush. Clinton, who did not want to get mixed up in a debate about foreign policy and probably didn't share the neo-isolation inclination of the question, stayed out of the fray. He allowed Buchanan and then Perot to do the damage for him.
I thought that in this election, Obama needed the equivalent of Buchanan and Perot to question whether McCain was so concerned with “gaining the whole world,” that he was going to allow the country to go to hell – or worse, that he would involve the country in entirely new wars of choice. Ron Paul did raise these kind of questions during the Republican primary. But Obama, like in 1992, has not actively encouraged them. Maybe, though, he hasn’t had to. The financial panic – and McCain’s palsied reaction to it – has probably done the damage this time. The polls don’t show it, but I believe that every time McCain starts attacking Obama for not pursuing victory in Iraq or being unwilling to test the surge in Afghanistan, or for being willing to undertake diplomacy with Iran, he may be losing votes -- not among the so-called Bush diehard Republicans, who are already committed, but among those independent and uncommitted voters he needs to woo.
--John B. Judis