McCain’s Iraq Stance Targeted

Posted March 28, 2008 at 5:47pm

Democratic Party leaders are quietly plotting a targeted offensive against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the upcoming Congressional debate on the Iraq War, aiming to at least dent the powerful platform the issue is certain to provide for his presidential campaign.

The strategy, which begins in earnest this week, is severalfold and involves trying to drown out McCain by holding Democratic-led press events and hearings, while at the same time galvanizing Members around a message that links the Arizona Senator to an unpopular President Bush and draws attention to his controversial remarks that U.S. troops might have to remain in Iraq for 100 years.

The plan will be difficult to execute, House and Senate Democrats acknowledged, since McCain is all but guaranteed the spotlight when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker come to Capitol Hill on April 8 and 9 to provide Congress with an assessment of the conflict. McCain not only is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but also has been a vocal supporter of the war and the Bush administration’s troop “surge.”

Neither of the Democratic presidential contenders enjoys a similar pulpit on the issue. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) holds a far less senior position on the Armed Services panel, while Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) sits on a different committee of jurisdiction, Foreign Relations, where he, too, is one of the more junior members. Both committees will hold hearings with Petraeus and Crocker on the same day, with Armed Services going first.

“That’s the natural dynamic,” conceded a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “Unfortunately, McCain is front and center, while the other two will have to wait until late in the news cycle to get their questions in.

“The idea is to bookend or muddy the debate a little bit as we head into the testimony,” the aide said. “Petraeus, Crocker and McCain have a huge platform to articulate their views, and we need to drive our own views home next week.”

Another senior Senate Democrat called it the “drown the fish strategy,” which, if successful, would knock McCain off his perch, while promoting Democrats generally and Obama and Clinton specifically. Also, Democrats aim to create a credibility gap between Petraeus and Crocker on the administration’s Iraq policy.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), declined to speak directly to how the Democrats’ strategy on Iraq relates to McCain, but said of the upcoming debate generally: “Certainly, it will give the two parties an opportunity to highlight their differences on one of the most important issues facing the country, which is how long our troops are going to be in Iraq and at what costs.”

Democrats will begin putting part of their strategy to practice today when Reid delivers remarks on the Senate floor to discuss what he will describe as “the raging civil war in Iraq.” Then, on Wednesday in the Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Joseph Biden (Del.) will kick off the first in a series of Iraq-related hearings on the future of the troop surge in advance of Petraeus and Crocker’s visit to the Hill on April 8.

The Foreign Relations hearings this week and next could give Obama a forum to promote his positions on Iraq without the competition of McCain and Clinton, but his panel is likely to spark less interest than at next week’s Armed Services hearing featuring Petraeus and two of the three presidential contenders. Throughout those hearings, fellow Senate Democrats are expected to pile on McCain, while the GOP presidential hopeful is likely to employ some of his closest allies — fellow Armed Services members Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) — to bolster and defend his Iraq platform.

McCain’s backers say they welcome any effort by Democrats to outdo him during the Iraq debate, believing his position atop the Armed Services Committee gives him an unmatchable opportunity to reinforce his credibility on an issue that has defined his candidacy. Plus, they argue, it doesn’t hurt for McCain to share the spotlight with the popular Petraeus, whose forthrightness Clinton questioned during the general’s last Hill appearance in September.

One senior Republican Senate aide said the GOP hopes the debate devolves into a presidential sideshow, saying: “Nothing would make Republicans happier than for [Clinton] to have a conversation with John McCain, and a public discussion on Iraq during the upcoming Petraeus hearings.”

The Congressional Democrats’ fear that McCain cannot be trumped during the Iraq debate dovetails with broader party concerns that the Republican White House hopeful is getting a free ride from criticism these days. With Obama and Clinton still battling it out for the Democratic nomination, the duo has been far more focused on one another than their likely general election adversary.

Recognizing just that, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean recently pleaded with his party’s governors, candidates and Democratic Senators and House Members to amplify their charges against McCain on issues such as the economy and Iraq to fill in the gap. Dean is looking to enlist reinforcements from the party establishment to act as surrogates for either Obama or Clinton until one of them secures the Democratic nomination.

“Dean is signaling he needs help because he can’t do it alone,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide.

Congressional Democrats already have been working McCain into their daily fodder. And both sides have been looking for opportunities to use the Senate floor to force difficult votes on the Senators running for the presidency. But with none of the trio spending much time on Capitol Hill lately, those efforts are often in vain.

“We told the DNC we’ll do what we can,” said the Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The talking points for Members include at every possible opportunity a reference to Bush and McCain.”

DNC officials have been talking regularly with Congressional leadership to find ways to “show a clear difference between where McCain is and where our candidates are,” according to one Democratic National Committee aide. This aide acknowledged the difficulty because Republicans have only one candidate, but Democrats are hoping that the attacks will resonate since both of their hopefuls’ positions are so similar.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to draw distinctions on policy, and that’s something the Hill needs to help coordinate,” the aide said. “Our role is to make sure Americans learn about the real John McCain, and we’ll use every opportunity, whether it’s his policy speeches or if it’s an issue being debated on the Hill, to point out flaws in his policies and why he’d be just a third Bush term.

“It needs to be all hands on deck.”

Democrats say Iraq will be the next — if not most difficult — test of their efforts to take McCain on without a singular nominee, but they also are eyeing ways to enlist Members to help highlight the three candidates’ differences on health care, corruption and the economy. Congressional Democrats plan to spend a good share of the next eight weeks pushing economic issues, including another attempt to pass a housing stimulus bill, as well as boosting federal housing assistance and perhaps, advancing a broader bill — or second stimulus package — to broadly jolt the nation’s weakened financial state.

Dean, along with Democrats on the Hill, will look to those areas to contrast likely efforts from Obama or Clinton and those by McCain. That includes, according to one House leadership aide, “tying him to Bush everywhere we can.”

This leadership aide said Democrats understand the challenges of trying to take the place of either Obama or Clinton in trying to go head to head with McCain, since no one else can command the same media attention as the presidential candidates. But this staffer said: “You have to deal with reality here. This is where we are, and we are dealing with where we are.

“This is what we are going to do and what we have to do.”