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The Right Stuff
But conservative and independent voters have the same question about McCain: What kind of Republican is he? In 2000, when the U.S. was at peace and the economy was luxuriating in the frothy end days of the first Internet boom, McCain's first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues. McCain was the authentic hero, the fighter pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. He was the reformer and the straight talker, the rare politician who perhaps because of his experience as a POW wasn't going to compromise his principles or hold his tongue to please his party. He was also, at his core, still the rowdy, runty, red-tempered plebe who finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy despite an IQ of 133. McCain became a symbol in 2000 of courage and candor. Few took close looks at his policy positions. It was almost enough to get him the Republican nomination.
This time is different. Character and authenticity still matter, but McCain's reputation as an expert on defense and foreign affairs carries far greater weight in the post-9/11 world than it did eight years ago. On Iraq, McCain supported the invasion and still does. But he was an early critic of the way the Bush Administration was prosecuting the war and called for a change in strategy that would include a surge in U.S. troops to gain control of Baghdad. At the time, advocating an increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq rather than a reduction was unpopular even within the G.O.P. But McCain stood by Bush when the policy was implemented.
For all his expertise, McCain tends to prefer blunt declarations about Iraq "the surge is working." He says U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for 100 years if necessary. What he doesn't often discuss are the trade-offs required to sustain an unending commitment to a war that drains more than $9 billion from the U.S. Treasury every month. Instead, he is dismissive of those who doubt that he's right. "It's almost a ludicrous argument 'How long are we going to stay?'" McCain insisted to me between campaign stops in Florida's Panhandle. "It's like asking 'How long are we going to stay in Japan?' Well, we've been there since World War II."
The success of the troop surge has given McCain points for prescience and reaffirmed his political courage. Yet there's a downside too. As violence in Iraq has ebbed, economic anxiety has rocketed to the top of voters' concerns. This shift exposes one of McCain's weaknesses. He is a conviction politician, passionate about the issues that animate him, dismissive of and uninterested in those that don't. Iraq, foreign policy, the military and treatment of veterans these topics get him excited. In the domestic realm, he's fire and energy when he rails against pork-barrel spending. But mention other issues taxes, health care, education policy and he briefly resorts to talking points before changing the subject. "Obviously, the economy is a very, very vital issue," he told me. "There's no doubt about that, O.K.? But the issue that's going to be with us after the economy recovers is the challenge of radical Islamic extremism, of which Iraq is the central battleground."