Corporate media outlets seem intent on blurring the lines between the Iraq policies of John McCain and Barack Obama. “Campaigns’ Iraq Stances Seem to Hit a Middle Ground” was the headline of an August 1 Washington Post article by Karen DeYoung that reported that the candidates’ “debate over the future of U.S. troops in Iraq seems to have entered a broad new middle ground, in which the question is not whether to withdraw but rather the speed and circumstances of departure.”
USA Today reported (8/4/08) that McCain and Obama’s Iraq War positions “seem to be drawing closer together.” To back up this claim, Kathy Kiely and David Jackson wrote that
McCain was never the enthusiastic supporter of President Bush’s Iraq war policy that Obama claims. The Republican was critical of the administration’s strategy as Iraq deteriorated after the 2003 fall of Baghdad. In a January 2007 Senate debate, for example, McCain excoriated the Bush administration’s “failed policy” in Iraq, accusing it of not sending enough troops.
If McCain was an actual critic of Bush’s Iraq performance “after the 2003 fall of Baghdad,” though, shouldn’t Kiely and Jackson have an example of that criticism earlier than a January 2007 debate? McCain’s actual statements from early in the war tended to be quite supportive, as when McCain on Fox News (6/11/03) responded to Neil Cavuto’s assertion that “many argue the conflict isn’t over”: “Well, then why was there a banner that said ‘mission accomplished’ on the aircraft carrier? . . . The major conflict is over, the regime change has been accomplished.” More recently, as McCain sought to reassure his Republican base, he has said things like “no one has supported President Bush on Iraq more than I have” (Think Progress, 4/2/08).
Taking these claims to an extreme was the editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll, Frank Newport, who wrote an online essay called “Exploring the Iraq Timetable Issue” (8/5/08) that argued that the fairest way to ask voters about which candidate’s position on Iraq they preferred was to assure them that “both positions were based on an assumption of a withdrawal of troops.” Newport explained, “Both candidates have indicated in their policy positions that they favor the ultimate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but they differ in terms of specifying a timetable for that withdrawal.”
Newport noted the striking results Gallup got when it asked such a question for USA Today: “Stipulating withdrawal as a given, with the only difference being a timetable versus no timetable for that withdrawal—a phrasing that mirrors the presidential candidates’ positions—shows a split right down the middle in attitudes.” He pointed out that McCain’s position gets much less support in polls that don’t tell respondents that withdrawal would be assured under either candidate.
The problem is that McCain does not, in fact, take the position that withdrawal from Iraq is assured. This is obvious from the lengthy quote from McCain’s website that Newport provides as evidence that McCain shares Obama’s withdrawal position: “To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests, and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility. It is a failure of leadership.” McCain could not be more explicit: He is not promising to withdraw from Iraq, and declares it would be irresponsible to do so. How one could conclude from this that “withdrawal would be a given” regardless of who is elected is hard to fathom—unless one is so eager to erase the differences between the candidates on Iraq that you can’t hear what they are saying.