David Frum opens a sensible call for the Republicans to get with it on health care reform with this jarring line: “If the 2008 presidential election were all about Iraq, John McCain would win.” To back up this counterintuitive assertion, he cites the “authoritative Pew poll” which he says shows increasing public optimism about the Iraq war and only a small minority — 14 percent — in favor of an “immediate withdrawal.”
It’s true that the recent decline in casualties, both American and Iraqi, following the surge has reduced antiwar sentiment somewhat and perhaps reduced its intensity even further. But it’s quite a leap to suggest that the war has become popular or a net plus for Republicans, and if McCain and the GOP campaign that way they will be every bit as far removed from the country as any conservative pining for 1980. There is an awful lot of polling data in addition to Pew’s survey that suggests the war remains unpopular. That includes the decision to go to war, the administration’s handling of the war, and any indefinite presence in Iraq. The public understands an immediate withdrawal, which neither candidate is seriously proposing or likely to deliver, is impractical and is willing to be somewhat more patient about exit strategies post-surge. But they still simultaneously want to win and get out.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways McCain could frame the war, short of taking my own position, that turns Iraq into a winning issue. McCain has been moving toward an effective Iraq message. If the debate shifts to which candidate would draw down faster and under which conditions, McCain might also be able leverage his greater foreign-policy and military experience to Barack Obama’s deteriment. The public might trust McCain’s ability to “handle” the war more than Obama’s or even Bush’s. But that’s not quite the same as claiming that the war is a political boon in its own right.