What could Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama have possibly been thinking when he told Bill O'Reilly that the Iraq war surge is not only working but working beyond his wildest dreams? Though Obama quickly added that he still thought the war was a mistake and that we should turn things over to Iraqi civilian rule as quickly as possible, that didn't blunt his surge endorsement; let alone his over the top praise of it. The surge has been Republican rival John McCain's mantra for the past year. McCain defiantly shouted it again in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. Each time he says it he punctuates it by sneering, mocking and nose thumbing at the Democrats, and by extension, Obama for saying that in his demanding more troops, artillery, and attacks, he was right and they were dead wrong.
There are several explanations for Obama's parroting McCain's line to O'Reilly. One is that he was talking to O'Reilly and anything less than a full court exuberance on the Iraq war would bring the O'Reilly hammer down on him. But Obama has seen, heard and dealt with the attacks from the win-the-war critics before so we'll give him a pass on O'Reilly dread. Another explanation is that he's changed his tune on the war. He gave a hint of that some weeks ago when he said that he'd "always" said that he'd rely on the generals and the Pentagon brass to decide what works and what's failed in Iraq. Since they say the surge is working he's simply taking them at their word.
The other explanation for him tossing this political bone is McCain's politics. A big reason for his vault past the other would-be Democratic contenders, especially Hillary Clinton, was his peace candidate pitch. Mid-Democratic pack candidate Obama repeatedly lambasted his then Democratic competitors for backing the Iraq war authorization and appropriations, and implied that he wouldn't (he subsequently did). However, the game quickly changed when Obama became the sole Democratic candidate. A too hard end the war and end it now line would get wild cheers from Moveon.org, and other antiwar activists, but by the time he secured the nomination he had them firmly stuffed in his bag. Getting those same cheers from blue collar workers especially those with sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, brothers an sisters, and relatives of close friends in Iraq in the must win battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri is another matter. These are the voters who Obama desperately needs to snatch the White House.
The truth is that a simplistic bring the troops home now has never been their sentiment. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last January, the question was asked, when it comes to dealing with Iraq which party would do a better job. Stunningly, the Democrats got only a marginally better rating from respondents on the handling of the war than the Republicans. One in five put the GOP and the Democrats on par with each other. Other polls since then have showed something just as curious. While Americans still think the war is a mistake, an equally significant number think that the war should be fought and won -- if possible.
The public mood and the polls on the war have always carried mixed signals. While the Iraq war is seen as a disaster, there is still uncertainty in the public's mind about what to do about it, and who best to do something about it. This uncertainty gives McCain enough room to make his case that he can handle the war better than Obama.
But money and votes aren't the only issue in which Obama sent a different message from the impassioned get-out-of-Iraq-now speeches he once thundered before audiences. The other issue was when to withdraw. Obama backed up his end-the-war-now rhetoric with another public demand that a firm timetable be set for withdrawal. In fact, a timetable with a specific withdrawal date was set by a Democratic senator. But that senator wasn't Obama. It was John Kerry. His bill set the goal of withdrawing combat troops from Iraq by the end of March 2008. In contrast, Obama's withdrawal plan does not set firm deadlines and would keep troops in Iraq if the Bush administration and the Iraqi government met a laundry list of benchmarks.
March has long since passed, the troops are still there and McCain is busy on the campaign trail taking credit for them being there in bigger numbers and seemingly winning.
The Iraq is no longer the hot ticket item with voters that it once was. It's been far overshadowed by economic woes. Obama can now have it both ways he can claim to be the antiwar candidate and at the same time he can back the generals. The joust with O'Reilly was obviously just the right time for that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).
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