06/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dueling Campaigns: Iraq Is Isn't Is Like South Korea. We Won't Will Won't Be Home For 100 Years. We Are Aren't Ragging On McCain's Age.

Proxies for John McCain and Barack Obama -- including former Democrat (now McCain ally) Sen. Joe Lieberman (V-CT) and former Democratic Presidential candidate (now Obama ally) Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) -- engaged in dueling press releases and conference calls today concerning John McCain's timetable (which either is or isn't important, and is either short or long, depending on whether you're listening to McCain or his friends) for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq (which either is or isn't like Germany and South Korea depending when you ask McCain). Along the way, Kerry and the other Obama backers defended their use of the word "confused" to describe McCain, and Lieberman took another big step away from his troubled relationship with Senate Democrats (but another step closer to his goal of becoming John McCain's Secretary of Defense -- or Vice-President).

McCain on "Today":The brouhaha began with McCain's appearance this morning on NBC's "Today" show, where host Matt Lauer asked McCain whether he had an estimate on when U.S. troops could come home from Iraq. McCain's answer included this great and terrible soundbite:

"No, but that's not too important. What's important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea. Americans are in Japan. American troops are in Germany. That's all fine."

The good news for McCain is that he didn't stop at "that's not too important," but went on to give a more nuanced explanation. The bad news for McCain is that his explanation involved a return to his old argument that U.S. troops could stay in Iraq long-term just like they have in Germany and South Korea -- the same argument he made in his much-publicized and troubling "100 years war" statement back on January 3:

Obama Campaign Jumps To:Shortly after the Lauer segment aired, the Obama camp called a phone conference with reporters to pounce on both the "not too important" and the "South Korea/Germany" aspects of McCain's statement. In it, John Kerry pointed out that McCain himself has admitted that, for religious and cultural reasons and because of its suicide bombers, Iraq isn't like Germany or South Korea, and U.S. troops shouldn't be expected to stay there long-term:

You can decide for yourself whether Kerry is telling the truth about McCain's fluctuating vision for Iraq: here's the audio from McCain's November 27, 2007 appearance on PBS's The Charlie Rose Show:

Kerry also referred to an earlier McCain mistake: his April 23, 2003, statement on MSNBC's Hardball that

"There's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shiahs. So I think they can probably get along.

Kerry said that statement "confuses the history going back to [the year] 682 of what has happened between Sunni and Shia and how deep that current runs." (Kerry's profoundly correct about this, though I'd put the date two years earlier: all Muslim children learn about the historical Battle of Karbala (Iraq!) in 680 C.E. (A.D.), when the rift between Sunni and Shia first burst into genocidal violence. What we (ignorantly) call the Battle of Karbala in 2007 is a historically resonant, but ultimately extremely minor, blip on most Muslims' long-range radar.) Historian Kerry launched into a comprehensive and persuasive riff on how dangerous McCain's "confusion" about the issues would be in a Commander in Chief:

Is "Confused" Secret Code for "Old"? On a different note, two reporters took issue with the various speakers' use of the word "confusion" during the follow-up Q&A session. Finley Lewis of the Copley News Service asked whether "the word confused or confusion... is somehow a code word for suggesting that Senator McCain is just simply too old to understand these things." Later, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times challenged Susan Rice's political correctness: "Are you aware... that when you use words like that it does suggest that you're talking about age, and that even if you're not, that comes across?" (Here's Sweet's blog about this.)

All three speakers fired right back -- and used the opportunity to underscore their perceptions of McCain's incompetence. Rice: "It's hard to have good judgment if you don't have a fact-based foundation." Kerry: "There are plenty of senators and congressmen in Washington, D.C., who are older than John McCain ... plenty of senators and congressmen -- John Warner and a bunch of others -- and they know who the Sunni are and they know who the Shia are and they know exactly who's training who and they don't make those mistakes." Danzig: "I don't think it's a question of age at all ... I think that [McCain's] judgment is so poor to begin with ... that I feel as though I'm dealing with bad judgment tempered by inconsistency."

McCain Conference Call: Eager to join battle (and move the subject away from the economy to the war, which McCain sees as a strength), the McCain camp called their own press conference, timed (contrary to the usual courtesy of avoiding such conflicts) to coincide with another Obama press call concerning the economy. Forced to choose between guns and butter, I chose guns, jumping off the economics call in time to catch Lieberman and Thune complaining about how the Democrats were being mean to McCain. Lieberman referred repeatedly to Democratic "attacks" on McCain, called McCain "courageous and right" and called Obama "consistently wrong."

Both Lieberman and Thune seemed to dutifully follow their prescribed talking points. Both accused Obama's backers of "distorting" McCain's words to "distract" the people (Lieberman: "...partisan attempt to distort John McCain's words and distract the American people" and "trying to use this to distract the media and the public"; Thune: "this clearly is a deliberate distortion that is trying to change the subject"). Both returned over and over to the supposed success of the Surge, which they say Obama is embarrassed by. And Lieberman -- the "man without a party" who has turned his longtime party's rejection of him into something resembling lemonade, but more sour -- referred repeatedly and contemptuously to Obama's campaign as "partisan." (Lieberman lost the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary to a newcomer, won re-election anyway under the banner of the essentially make-believe "Connecticut for Lieberman" party without bothering to register as a member of that party, and now calls himself an "Independent Democrat" while campaigning for McCain.) The whole McCain call is here.

Finally, the McCain campaign issued a press release quoting the highlights of their own conference call -- highlights that emphasize the talking points outlined above ("attacks", "distort", "distract" and "partisan").

Takeaways: (1) Lieberman's even less likely today than he was before to continue caucusing with the Democrats much longer, especially now that Obama has taken over the reins of the party (and taken Lieberman to the woodshed); (2) the McCain camp seems to be testing a new theory: that no matter how clearly and publicly McCain says a bad thing, it can be diluted into irrelevance if his surrogates can just add enough words of their own to characterize or explain it; (3) it's fun listening to people argue about whether John McCain is confused because he's old or just because that's the way he is, and even more fun -- a relief, actually -- to hear Democrats accused of some political incorrectness other than sexism for a change.


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