05/20/2008 11:36 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain: From McBush to McNixon?

The Bush-McCain fusillades on Iran and appeasement may be providing cover for what is beginning of a strategic repositioning of McCain on Iraq. In his recent address bizarrely musing on what he would have done in his first term as president, McCain fantasized that by 2013, "America has welcomed home" most of the troops..."The Iraq war will have been won... Iraq is a functioning democracy...the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq..."

This, I suspect, marks a strategic turn from unrelenting defender of Bush's war to champion of peace with honor, contrasting an honorable peace to a humiliating surrender. McCain may be moving from McBush to McNixon.

In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein's scintillating study of American politics in the 1960s, Perlstein shows how Nixon improbably transformed himself from a hawk on Vietnam to a "responsible" peace candidate. In 1968, against the hapless Hubert Humphrey, Nixon brandished a secret plan to end the war. More tellingly, in 1972, four years of war later, he still jockeyed to be the peace president.

Nixon's language is now echoed by McCain. Here is Nixon on Vietnam:

"This has been the longest and most difficult war in American history.
Honest and patriotic Americans have disagreed as to whether we should have become involved at all nine years ago.
And there has been disagreement on the conduct of the war."

And later,

"The South Vietnamese are fighting courageously and well in their self-defense... We are not trying to conquer North Vietnam or any other territory in the world...Let us bring our men home from Vietnam; let us end the war in Vietnam. But let us end it in such a way that the younger brothers and sons of the brave men who have fought in Vietnam will not have to fight against in some other Vietnam...

Let us therefore unite as a nation in a firm and wise policy of real peace - not the peace of surrender, but peace with honor, not just peace in our time, but peace for generations to come."

It was all nonsense, of course. Nixon already knew the war could not be won. He simply wanted to avoid the defeat before his re-election. Once the US troops left, the South Vietnamese army disintegrated.

Aping Nixon, McCain wants an argument not for or against the war, but for or against an honorable peace. If he heads down this route, he needn't joust with Obama about the judgment that got us into the debacle. He doesn't dispute it was waged badly. He already argues that the "surge" isn't simply a holding action, that it is the path to an honorable peace. Iraqis, like the South Vietnamese, are painted as increasingly able to stand on their own. Now, a peace with honor is presented as within reach in the next four years. In contrast, Obama's call for bringing the troops home is painted as a recipe for humiliating defeat that will embolden al Qaeda and weaken America.

And, with majorities of Americans desperate for change and lined up against McCain on war, economy, health care, McCain will have little choice but to reprise the Nixon strategy of running a campaign based upon cultural identity, seeking to appeal to Nixon's "silent majority," in Perlstein's words the "values voters, people of faith, patriots" in contrast to the "liberals, cosmopolitans, the intellectuals, the professionals...who look down on the first category as unwitting dupes."

So, as Harold Meyerson pointed out, McCain's first post-primary ads hailed him as the "American president Americans have been waiting for." Not the "strong president "or the "conservative president,"but the American president, as against, presumably, his alien opponent. And thus the Republican attack against Obama as an elitist, disdainful of working people, out of touch with their values.

This is straight out of the Nixonland playbook, and leads inevitably to an ugly campaign.

Will it work? Many Republicans now worry that voters are no longer eating the dog food, to use Rep. Tom Davis metaphor. Party leaders were stunned by the loss of the special election in Mississippi where the RCCC poured a lot of money into making the Democrat into Barack Obama, throwing everything in the book at him -- Rev. Wright, flag pins, elitism, scorn for the faithful, etc.

Moreover, McCain doesn't appear comfortable with this strategy. He doesn't dream about an honorable peace in Iraq; he dreams about winning. He doesn't have Nixon's simmering resentments against the elite that he was born into. There's a part of him that thinks he can win an argument about the war, unraveling employer based health care, sustaining Bush's economic priorities.

But McCain's advisors are clearly telling him he can't win a race as Bush's third term. They'd rather turn the race into Nixonland, and seek play on the divides of race and culture and class. To escape being McBush, McCain campaign may turn to McNixon.