The President of the United States gets more media access than any other politician, and the reason is quite easy to discern: he is the only person who represents all of us.
To be sure, he is selected in a convoluted, indirect and abstruse way. And the majority of those we have chosen for this exalted position have been inept, corrupt, ignorant, negligent, foolish, or generally undistinguished. Approval ratings of more than 50% are rare…and fleeting. (Would you want surgery from a doctor who was rated as lousy by half the people he treated?)
But the Constitution created one office holder in whom is vested the spirit of the entire electorate, and so this person, for good or ill, gets more attention than anyone else in the government. Not surprisingly, we also pay quite a bit of serious attention to selecting candidates for the job, even though the process itself is something of a farce.
Like the Democrats’ debate a couple of weeks ago, last Thursday’s Republican face-off among presidential aspirants was notable principally for its entertainment value. After all, there are few things more amusing than encountering three politicians of national stature, people who want to represent the entire United States of America, who do not believe in evolution. Americans with even a modicum of education can relax, though: Brownback, Huckabee and Tancredo may be very nice people, but none will ever be president.
Most of the Republicans’ answers were predictable, and almost all their positions were the opposite of the Democrats’. But on one subject everyone seemed to agree: the Bush administration has made a hash of Iraq. Yes, there was the occasional, requisite, mildly laudatory observation about George W. Bush’s dedication and patriotism, but there appeared to be general agreement that the adventure has been horribly mismanaged.
Not since Lyndon Johnson’s administration has there been such a consensus among the president’s own party stalwarts that getting too close to him may be injurious to political health. Of all the major contestants, John McCain is perceived to be the closest to Bush in his strategic thinking about Iraq. The perception is not entirely correct. While McCain is adamant about not withdrawing precipitously, he is realistic about the low chances for success if we stay. He understands our reluctance to commit the forces necessary to get the job done, the four years we’ve waited to employ the proper tactics, and the damage done by Paul Bremer’s hideously dysfunctional administration of Iraq.
But in one remark last Thursday, McCain unconsciously summarized the naïve world view of Bush’s presidency. When he said that he would pursue Osama bin Laden “to the gates of hell,” he fell into the same simple-minded trap that has led this administration to mismanage expectations by personalizing the war against terrorists.
The truth is that Osama bin Laden is the least important of our strategic security concerns. Al-Qaeda is a serious problem, but bin Laden himself is of less significance than at least half a dozen others. Pursuing bin Laden is at best a waste of resources and demonstrates only that we have unsophisticated solutions to complex problems. Although we hope that he is killed or captured, Osama bin Laden is much more likely to die of a landslide or dysentery or old age.
John McCain may have been kidding, of course. He has a well-developed and wry sense of humor, and maybe he was having a little joke. Or perhaps he was playing to the simple-minded among those who will vote in the primary, since primary voters typically hold more extreme views and tend to be a bit rabid.
In the end, though, if McCain wants to energize his campaign, regain momentum and avoid being viewed as another politician with worn-out ideas, he needs to distance himself from the failed strategies of George W. Bush.
Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.