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Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain speaks in Annapolis, Md., on April 2.
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No matter who gets elected, U.S. foreign policy is in for a big change, says Politico senior writer David Paul Kuhn. As evidence, Kuhn points to Republican candidate Sen. John McCain saying George Bush hasn't taken the deterioration of America's image abroad seriously enough.
For the past week and a half, Kuhn says, all three leading presidential campaigns have focused on how long the U.S. will be in Iraq. That's partly because of a comment McCain made in New Hampshire three months ago. "Maybe a hundred," McCain said about how many years U.S. troops may stay in Iraq. "We've been in Japan for 60 years, we've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me."
In response to media attention and criticism from the Democratic campaigns, Kuhn says, McCain made a speech in Los Angeles on March 26 in which he "basically admits that the view of the U.S. has depreciated." Kuhn says the address to the World Affairs Council was a stunning clarification of purpose for a big proponent of the Iraq war.
By expressing concern about the U.S. image abroad, McCain broke with President Bush for the first time, Kuhn says. McCain has said that this is important, and that the president hasn't paid enough attention to our image in the world, Kuhn says. "No matter who's our next president, there really is an end to a 'cowboy diplomacy' pushed by this White House."
Stunning or not, how fair have discussions of McCain's remarks been? "What's accurate," Kuhn says, "is that [McCain] said the words '100 years' and 'Iraq.' " Kuhn says he would like to see the Democratic campaigns assess McCain's comments and separate what is "intellectually fair" from what is "politically successful." He says Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton instead have been relentlessly hammering McCain. "It's been entirely taken out of context by the Democrats."
Obama has said of McCain, "When he starts talking about staying in Iraq for 100 years, then that tells me all he wants to do is to continue on the George Bush failed policies of the past." Meanwhile, Clinton has asked: "How can Sen. McCain find the money for 100 more years in Iraq?"
Kuhn says McCain and the GOP have been keenly aware of the potential damage. Clinton has backed off her harshest words, and independent groups such as Factcheck.org have supported McCain's argument. "The mistake is still there," Kuhn says. "The comment by McCain ... betrayed what was I think at the time a lack of attentiveness to the weariness of the American public."
The irony, Kuhn says, is that what McCain says — that there could be a U.S. presence in Iraq for 100 years — is probably "not inaccurate." But it's a result of his candor and his willingness to say things that are unique among the top candidates. "He's very much an intellectual pugilist," Kuhn says. "McCain will call someone a jerk, including me, as a reporter. ... In doing that, he does have a tendency, like with this comment, to be too quick to reply."
Will such a quick tongue give his Democratic opponents more ammunition? "Yes, if he makes more mistakes," Kuhn says. "Presidential elections are won and lost very often on narratives. ... This one gaffe will not have everybody thinking that this war hero is a warmonger. But ... if he makes a few more of those mistakes, he might allow Democrats to paint him like Barry Goldwater."
When Kuhn looks at that 1964 model, in which Democrats painted the Republican presidential candidate as too dangerous for America, he sees elements that could recur today and others that couldn't. Kuhn says Ronald Reagan in 1980 prepared for just such attacks from Jimmy Carter's team. Carter's efforts failed.
McCain could probably parry charges that he's too militaristic, Kuhn says.
"McCain very much is the reluctant soldier. If he can learn his lesson ... then I don't think Democrats will very successfully turn the hawk into somebody who's actually a dangerous hawk."