The obstinancy of hope

As Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) slug it out for the Democratic presidential nomination, many party leaders watch Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) with increasing anxiety. He’s working hard to solidify his base. He ties or narrowly leads Clinton and Obama in general election polls. He’s actually raising money — not nearly as much as either Democrat — but the fact that he finally seems to be trying is heartening to Republicans and disturbing to Democrats. And of course, the senator has been playing up his commander-in-chief credentials with trips to Iraq, speeches to veterans’ groups and at hearings this week with Gen. David Petraeus.

Democrats should take heart from McCain’s warrior-president message. America has had enough of this war. McCain’s promises to “win” the war in Iraq just don’t play well with voters who simply want it over.

Pollster Steve Lombardo, a Republican who worked with Mitt Romney, calls the general election head-to-head polls a “mirage.” He points out that we are in the “most protracted period of voter discontent since Watergate.” Over 80 percent of voters say the nation is on the wrong track. That is an astounding number showing a very deep and abiding level of dissatisfaction with America’s leadership. President Bush’s approval ratings have been in a freefall since the beginning of 2005, almost immediately after his reelection. His approval levels have dropped from the low 50s to the low 30s and show no sign of moving upward.

Worries about the economy certainly contribute to the negative national attitude. Voters have decided we are in a recession, no matter what the economists and number-crunchers say. But frustration with an endless war is the most powerful driver of dissatisfaction. Conduct of the war started the turn against Bush and continues to drive it, especially when the general running it, our ambassador to the hapless government that was supposed to have brought Iraq under control and President Bush continue to say that we’ll need a large military presence in that country well into the future. We may be there “a hundred years,” McCain says; and even though that favorite line of Democrats is taken somewhat out of context, Americans have come to believe he really means it.

John McCain was, after all, advocating that we invade Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein when George Bush was still a governor. He finally got the war he wanted and his initial objective was accomplished quickly, just as he’d predicted it would be. One could argue that the victory McCain wanted eight years ago was achieved in a few weeks. Then he and the Bush administration moved the goal posts. Not only did our military have to get rid of Saddam, it had to occupy Iraq until that nation’s fractious internal political forces could cobble together a government that fit some neocon vision of a stable Middle Eastern ally.

Five years of civil war have taught us that won’t happen anytime soon. Yet John McCain continues to argue we can win this war. Even though he’s confused over Sunnis and Shiites and al Qaeda, McCain is convinced we must defeat whichever coalition it is we’re still fighting. He continues to view this conflict as central to the war on terror, even as Afghanistan slips further into chaos and our armed forces are drained of their ability to defend us.

Watching McCain the past few weeks, one could not but wonder if he learned nothing from Vietnam. He seems to have bought into the same mythology that trapped President Lyndon Johnson and ended his career — that we just can’t lose this war, even though it is impossible to win. Vietnam divided our nation, demoralized our military and damaged America’s reputation around the world. McCain would have us play out that same scenario yet again.

Sometimes the pollsters are right. Steve Lombardo is correct that George Bush has so damaged “the Republican brand” that there is little chance to keep the White House this year. Mark Mellman has written in these pages that voters are mediocre predictors of their future behavior. Since John McCain seems to be basing his campaign on simply doing a better job of implementing policies Americans have overwhelmingly rejected, it is likely that voter dissatisfaction will jump whomever emerges from Denver as the Democratic nominee into a double-digit lead. If that happens it will take a huge blunder by the Democrat or a dramatic change in direction by McCain to keep a Republican in the White House.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com