Political horse-race fans are focusing on Obama's 11-point lead in the new Newsweek poll. But I'm focusing on the 10-point lead McCain has on national security and terrorism -- the only remaining issue voters believe the Republican candidate would be more adept at handling.
As the one arrow left in McCain's quiver-- other than appealing to racists -- national security becomes the likeliest playing field for that GOP fall tradition, the October Surprise.
Last week, desperate to "turn the page" on the economy, the McCain campaign flipped over to the tie-Obama-to-Bill-Ayers section of the scorched earth playbook. It helped unleash some of the darkest demons in the electoral psyche, but it didn't move the needle (except on McCain's unfavorables, which hit a new high).
So what might be the final weeks' bombshell? Here is Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press:
"There are some people in the Obama campaign who believe that there's a concerted effort under way to get Osama bin Laden before Election Day and bring him out of captivity, dead or alive, in some fashion."
They've tried and -- other than on some misprinted ballots in New York -- failed to turn Obama into Osama. (The latest attempt came from the chair of Virginia's Republican Party, who said Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden "both have friends that have bombed the Pentagon" -- a comment McCain refused to disavow, although his campaign already had.)
Of course, capturing Osama just before the election has been an October GOP dream in 2002, 2004, 2006, and now 2008.
But, barring the fulfillment of that dream, it seems all-but-certain that McCain will look for another way to highlight what the Newsweek numbers show is his only remaining strength. So Obama -- and his foreign policy expert Joe Biden -- need to make a concerted effort to neutralize the issue by going directly at McCain's supposed strong suit. Doing so would make the success of an October Surprise far less likely.
The best line of attack would be drawing attention to McCain's actual record. His national security rep in 2008 is as over-inflated as the housing bubble was in 2005.
The McCain Doctrine, if there is such a thing, basically boils down to two core beliefs: 1) you don't sit down and talk with your enemies (and sometimes you don't sit down and talk with your friends, either -- see Spain) 2) the surge was the greatest, most successful strategy ever, and should be exported to Afghanistan.
Obama can make his case on the wrong-headedness of McCain's approach by calling on a persuasive lineup of evidence, including the words of Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. David McKiernan (commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan), and the latest consensus findings of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
Let's start with Petraeus, who McCain has called an "American hero," and who is also the person he'd most like to have dinner with. Last week, speaking at the neocon -friendly Heritage Foundation, Petraeus basically gave his seal of approval to Obama's stand on negotiating with hostile foreign leaders while undercutting McCain's.
Asked specifically about the disagreement between the two candidates on this issue, which flared up again during the last debate, Petraeus said, "I do think you have to talk to enemies." He pointed out that in Iraq "we sat down with some of those who were shooting at us" -- even some "with our blood on their hands." "This is how you end these kinds of conflicts," he said.
That's precisely the kind of thinking that led Sarah Palin to call Obama "beyond naïve" and "dangerous," and McCain to repeatedly accuse him of not understanding the world. Betcha they won't say the same thing about Petraeus.
Next up, McKiernan and the intelligence agencies:
One of the reasons the public still trusts McCain more than Obama on national security is the media's unquestioned acceptance of the idea that the surge was an unequivocal success and has, as McCain frequently claims, put us "on a path to victory" in Iraq.
Even putting aside the fact that the political reconciliation that was the actual goal of the surge has yet to happen, the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq makes clear that the reduction in violence that is the source of McCain's triumphalism is, as Petraeus has termed the overall situation in Iraq, "fragile" and "reversible."
The top-secret analysis, the conclusions of which were leaked last week, warns that unresolved ethnic and sectarian disputes could lead to a renewed outbreak of violence.
What's more, responsibility for one of the main tactics contributing to the security gains of the last year -- the U.S. paying former Sunni insurgents to stop targeting American forces -- has just been turned over to the Shiite-led Iraqi government, leading to fears that many of the 100,000 so-called Sons of Iraq may re-join the insurgency.
Despite all this, McCain continues to point to the surge as proof of his foreign policy acumen -- and, in the last debate, suggested it's the same strategy that is "going to have to be employed in Afghanistan."
Gen. McKiernan doesn't agree. He points to "countless... differences between Iraq and Afghanistan," and concludes: "What I don't think is needed -- the word that I don't use in Afghanistan is the word surge."
McCain obviously hasn't gotten that memo. Nor the one explaining that those still occupying the White House now privately admit that Afghanistan is, as according to Katie Couric, the "single most pressing security threat in the war on terror." McCain and Palin continue to insist the "central front" in the war on terror is Iraq.
All told, McCain's response to our greatest national security crises, Iraq and Afghanistan, has been every bit as erratic, reckless, glib, and clueless as his response to the financial crisis.
If Obama and Biden forcefully drive this point home again and again, should McCain unleash an all-but-certain-to-be-about-national-security October Surprise, it will prove to be no more successful than his pathetic attempt to smear Obama using Bill Ayers.
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