McCain Champions the Surge, Hillary Needs One
Another big week in the presidential race is on tap with General David Petraeus coming to Washington to discuss the situation in Iraq.
It's especially important for John McCain, for whom a continuing sense of success about the surge strategy he championed is key. Much of the general election will turn on how Iraq is defined in the public view, and how the candidates are perceived going forward.
It's also a week in which Hillary Clinton's trailing campaign must sort itself out after the sacking of chief strategist Mark Penn, try to keep former President Bill Clinton from having another outburst, answer more questions about the Clintons' sudden post-White House wealth, and push hard to try to make up an increasingly large fundraising gap with frontrunner Barack Obama.
McCain will have an edge when Petraeus testifies on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. He's the ranking Republican on Armed Services, so he will speak very early in the proceedings and can interject questions and comments at any time. Clinton and Obama, in contrast, are junior members of Armed Services (Clinton) and Foreign Relations (Obama), and under the seniority system will go late in the proceedings.
Is the military surge having its hoped for effect? Are Iraqi forces able to win in the field? (Something much in question after the recent factional fighting in Basra against Shiite militias.) Has the Iraqi government made real progress in reconciling the various factions and forging a true national government? What role is Iran now playing, amidst reports that it was Tehran which quelled recent fighting amongst Shiites and that the US may be about to have further talks with Iran?
More about McCain and Iraq, but first the Democrats.
Mark Penn is out as chief strategist to Clinton's presidential campaign. The controversial pollster and spinner was fired yesterday in the wake of the controversy over his role pushing a trade pact with Colombia that the candidate said she was against. On Friday, the government of Colombia fired Penn and his firm -- Burson Marsteller, he's CEO of the international PR firm -- after Penn apologized for his secret meeting Monday with Colombia's ambassador to the US to discuss pushing the trade pact.
Penn will supposedly continue to provide polling assistance to the Clinton campaign, which trails Obama and seems to have no actual hope of catching up to the freshman Illinois senator.
On a personal note, I had gotten very tired of Penn months ago for his relentless spin and avoidance of political candor. He notoriously put out a memo purportedly discrediting the Des Moines Register poll which showed Obama on the verge of winning Iowa. Penn claimed that "the numbers" showed the Register's pollsters had no idea of what they were talking about. Actually, they were exactly right, and Penn was simply assembling and manipulating reefs of numbers to buttress his spin. I recall asking Penn last year, after one of his campaign conference call presentations which, as usual, asserted that Clinton's candidacy was "inevitable," which the conventional media totally bought into, what would happen to all the numbers he cited if Obama won Iowa. He didn't have an answer.
New Clinton pollster Geoff Garin and longtime Clinton spin doctor Howard Wolfson are the new message mavens. Wolfson has sought to distinguish his spin from Penn's, but they have usually been in total alignment.
Clinton previously fired her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, after failing to lock up the nomination on February 5th as the senator and Penn always said she would.
Leaders of some of the biggest unions in the country, now backing Obama, such as the Teamsters and SEIU, insisted that Clinton fire Penn, who says that he was not meeting with the Colombian ambassador on behalf of Clinton, but in his other role as CEO of the Burson-Marsteller international PR firm. Penn apologized for the meeting last Friday, but it was too little too late. Especially since, last month, while making hay out of a meeting between Obama's economic advisor and the Canadian consul in Chicago in which Obama's criticism of NAFTA was supposedly made light of, Clinton had this to say: "Just ask yourself what you would do if some of my advisors had been having private meetings with foreign governments."
Bill and Hillary Clinton have put out their tax returns for the past seven years. They made over $109 million, paid $33 million in taxes, and made $10 million in charitable donations. Nearly half the money came in the form of fees paid to former President Clinton for speaking engagements. This is a lot more than I thought. Reporters and bloggers will be picking through all of it. One key question. What did Clinton do for Ron Burkle, the LA billionaire who paid him over $15 million. The Burkle investment firm Clinton is part of handles the portfolio of the ruler of Dubai, a Gulf state emirate which makes for a very intriguing situation with a former president and current presidential candidate involved.
Bill Clinton already has serious new image problems. A new national poll by the Rasmussen outfit finds that a big plurality of American voters believe that former President Bill Clinton's campaigning on his wife's behalf has hurt his historical legacy. 43% say they believe that he's hurt his reputation, while only 17% say he's enhanced it. 29% see no impact. The assessment crosses party lines. Among Democrats, 22% have the positive view while 41% have the negative view. There is no gender gap.
Speaking of money, Obama raised over twice as much money as Clinton in March, some $40 million to her $20 million. All of Obama's money can be used in the primaries and caucuses; Clinton always has some of hers which can only be used for a general election which looks increasingly like a mirage. Obama now has about 1.3 million contributors, with the great bulk of the money coming in over the Internet.
Obama and McCain started sparring again with one another last week, and that will undoubtedly heat up this week around the Petraeus report.
Last week, in the midst of his "Service To America" biographical tour, Obama charged again that McCain wants an endless war in the Middle East.
The notion that McCain wants a "100 year" war in Iraq -- a meme they most definitely do not want to become a settled "fact" -- led top McCain advisors Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter to say some very hard things last week about the Democratic frontrunner.
"The lofty rhetoric," said Schmidt, of Barack Obama's speeches. "It's nonsense talk." Salter chimed in as well, "His whole brand is, ‘I'm not about that. I'm about something better.' "
The two advisors complained about Obama's repeated invoking of McCain's statement last January that he could see a U.S. presence in Iraq for another 100 years. McCain seemed to be talking not about a hundred years war, but about a non-combat presence, as the U.S. has in South Korea.
But since then, Obama, Clinton and the Democratic Party have repeatedly talked up the "100 years" comment to suggest that McCain wants to continue the war that long.
"It's absolutely dishonest," Schmidt says, "absolutely dishonest. It's old-style Chicago politics. I guess that is how they play politics in Chicago. Senator Obama has done the country a great service in this ‘100 year' comment," says Schmidt, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign manager, "because now the American people have the information they need to know that he is being dishonest."
McCain has not said that he wants a 100-year war in Iraq. What's he's talked about is along the lines of the ongoing American presence in South Korea, which dates back to 1945. But as the Democratic National Committee points out, a Washington Post Fact Checker post shows McCain saying last November that he wasn't for keeping troops in Iraq for decades.
The Obama attack came on the same day that McCain gave what he saw as the most important speech of his tour, his address at Annapolis about his heritage of national service. The attack devised by "Chicago," as the Obama high command is known, cleverly distracted McCain from his message of the day.
But the speech had already been given some short shrift. Aside from an early snippet on MSNBC, the cable news nets didn't carry the Annapolis speech live, in contrast to McCain speeches the previous week in California on both geopolitics and the financial crisis. Even Fox News kept to its usual early morning chat fest.
It's too bad, because the speech is quite telling about what McCain is about. I'll write about it in a future column.
Bill Bradley is a Pajamas Media correspondent. His PajamasXpress blog is New West Notes.