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January 27, 2008

The Low Blow

For the most part, the Republican primary campaign has seen tough but honest debate over the issues, as opposed to the racially inflammatory hardball being played between the Democrats. The GOP candidates have done their best to keep negativity to a minimum -- or at least they did until now. John McCain told a Florida crowd that Mitt Romney at one point backed withdrawal from Iraq -- and Romney cried foul, for good reason, according to Time's Swampland:

McCain wants the Florida primary to be an election about national security, his best issue. But until Saturday, the contest was humming along as an election more about the economy, Mitt Romney's best issue. So McCain went on the attack Saturday, lashing out at Romney by accusing him of having once wanted to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

''Now, one of my opponents wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster,'' McCain said about Romney, at a stop in Fort Myers. Then McCain added, "If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher."

When told of the comments, Romney got visibly testy. ''That's dishonest, to say that I have a specific date. That's simply wrong,'' Romney said at a stop outside Tampa. "To say something that's not accurate is simply wrong, and he knows better."

Romney demanded an apology from McCain, which seemed to simply delight McCain, since he used it to escalate the war of words even higher. "I think the apology is owed to the young men and women serving this nation in uniform," McCain said. Then his campaign started sending out a blizzard of emails, including comments from former CIA director James Woolsey knocking Romney's support for the war.

Most of us got a few of these e-mails yesterday as well, and if the blogospheric response gives any indicator, McCain didn't convince anyone. The quotes used to support McCain's contention don't demand a withdrawal at all. Romney did say in an interview that George Bush and Nouri al-Maliki probably have benchmarks in mind for a point in which American troops would be reduced, but in those interviews he never said that a failure to meet those benchmarks would result in an American retreat. Instead, he described the common-sense idea that the two allies would and should discuss what victory should look like -- and that they should keep that formula to themselves.

As Power Line noted yesterday, McCain certainly has room to claim that his support for the surge ran deeper than the other candidates. He demanded a change in strategy as early as 2004, and when Bush and Petraeus launched the "surge", he was its biggest booster in Congress. Romney and Rudy Giuliani took a more cautious approach, preferring to see its success before proclaiming it to be the correct position -- but neither of them demanded or even suggested a retreat as the alternative. Both underscored the necessity of victory.

Scherer points out that in the very interview McCain and his team cites, Romney explicitly said he would veto any bill from Congress that demanded withdrawal deadlines:

QUESTION: So, private. You wouldn't do it publicly? Because the president has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, of course. Can you imagine a setting where during the Second World War we said to the Germans, gee, if we haven't reached the Rhine by this date, why, we'll go home, or if we haven't gotten this accomplished we'll pull up and leave? You don't publish that to your enemy, or they just simply lie in wait until that time. So, of course, you have to work together to create timetables and milestones, but you don't do that with the opposition.

This is a fundamentally dishonest attack. One of the reasons why some Republicans who have opposed McCain over issues like the BCRA and immigration have tried to keep a civil tongue in discussing McCain is because of the respect he has earned as a stalwart on the war. He deserves that respect; he has been an indispensable voice for the effort and has the right to hold himself up as that. However, he should be showing that respect to others who have supported the war and the troops.

McCain has promised to take a new, respectful tone with Democrats. If he wants to impress us in the primaries, maybe he should try that with Republicans.

UPDATE: Oh, wait. Here's the quote that McCain may have meant:

[He] said Thursday that he hadn't yet decided on precise benchmarks. "They'd have to be specific, and they (Iraqi government officials) would have to meet them," he said.

Asked what penalty would be imposed if Iraq failed to meet his benchmarks, he said: "I think everybody knows the consequences. Haven't met the benchmarks? Obviously, then, we're not able to complete the mission. Then you have to examine your options."

Well, except for the fact that it was John McCain who said this -- a year and a day ago.


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