The Republicans are steamed about a pair of new TV ads - one from the Democratic National Committee, another from the liberal group moveon.org - that paint John McCain as a warmonger who wants to fight in Iraq for another 100 years. The Republican umbrage is somewhat amusing, for reasons I will soon explain, but first it's important to acknowledge that, empirically speaking, they do have a right to be ticked off.
The DNC ad plays a clip from a Jan. 3 McCain town hall meeting that shows the candidate talking about a potentially long presence for U.S. troops in Iraq ("maybe 100, that'd be fine with me"), then hitting the viewer with some brutal war footage and the latest stats about our casualties and war costs. The clear implication, for anyone connecting the dots, is that McCain was talking about another 100 years of war.
Meanwhile, moveon.org's tag line is, "100 years in Iraq? And you thought no one could be worse than George Bush." The clear implication there is that McCain as president would be even more of a hawk than the deceiver who stuck us in this quagmire after declaring - five years ago today - that "major combat operations are over." (The ad itself ends with a priceless photo of Bush and McCain in an awkward love embrace.)
Nevertheless, when McCain's town-hall remarks are read in context, it's clear that he was not talking about 100 years of war; rather, he was arguing that some troops might be need to be stationed there for backup purposes, much as we have done elsewhere in the world. Here's the context that doesn't appear in the two TV ads:
"We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. It’s fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world."
When Democratic chairman was asked about his ad on NBC the other day, he insisted that it did not seek to imply that McCain wants America to fight on for 100 years. Dean said, "We don't think we ought to be in Iraq for a hundred years under any circumstances." But if the Democrats really intended to cover all circumstances, they also would have used McCain's remarks about Japan and South Korea. They didn't, of course, because they wanted to leave the impression that McCain's was talking only about the prospects of a 100-year war.
We can legitimately debate whether McCain is right or wrong to believe that America can successfully fight its way to a longterm peacekeeping role, and whether the length of time it would take is worth the cost. But that's too nuanced for your basic 30-second attack ad, which requires that words be wrenched from context and used as a cudgel.
So the Republicans' annoyance is justified. And yet...OK, here's the thing:
They're the last people who should be crying in their beer about campaign falsehoods, given the fact that, over the past 20 years, they have perfected the art of distortion.
Two random examples from recent campaigns: George W. Bush, as a new candidate in 2000, had a line in his standard stump speech about how Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. While trailing Bush around New Hampshire and California early that year, I heard Bush deliver that line a dozen times. Then he said it again during one of the autumn debates. Problem was, Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet. He'd told CNN in 1999 that, as a congressman, he had taken the "initiative" in getting the Internet created - a claim that has been repeatedly confirmed by the Internet's tekkie pioneers. But the Republicans reduced the Gore remark to shorthand, and Bush repeated it endlessly until a sufficient number of Americans judged Gore to be a deluded blowhard.
Second random example: In the spring of 2004, Bush and a slew of GOP surrogates claimed that John Kerry, as a senator, "voted 350 times for higher taxes on the American people." Then it turned out that the Republican tally was a tad too flexible (they had counted things like Kerry's refusal to repeal the windfall profits tax on Big Oil, and his refusal to cut the federal tax on cigarettes). So the GOP retooled, and came back with a new message, this time that Kerry had voted to raise taxes "98 times." And that TV ad turned out to be a gross exaggeration as well.
The point is, I don't recall any Republicans fuming when Gore's words and Kerry's actions were twisted for political purposes. Two wrongs don't make a right, as our mothers used to say, but the GOP's veteran hardball players know full well that "politics ain't beanbag," as the American humorist Finley Peter Dunne used to say...and that, as the Bible tells us, you reap what you sow.