FOR TWO DAYS, John McCain and Mitt Romney have traded accusations on what was, until recently, the most important issue in the Republican presidential primary: Iraq. And while Romney attempted Sunday to diffuse the growing dispute, McCain escalated his criticism.
Talking to a handful of reporters on his campaign bus, McCain said that Romney had used "code words" to call for withdrawal from Iraq. "At the time [of Romney's remarks] it was whether we were going to stay or go. And that's what it was all about. 'Timetables' was the buzzword and everybody knows it . . . Timetables' was the codeword for 'bailout.' . . . It has to be viewed in the context of the time and what was going on at the time--that was everybody wanted out. Nobody but a few of us said we not only can't get out, we can't set timetables, we've got to increase troops. We've got to have the surge."
The entire episode began at the debate on Thursday, when McCain made a passing reference to Romney, without actually naming him. "There were others that called for a phased or secret withdrawal," he said.
In a speech the following day, McCain once again alluded to Romney without naming him, but got more specific talking to reporters afterwards. "If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher."
Several media outlets have taken McCain to task for his claims that Romney called for a secret timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but McCain stands by the charge.
Here, briefly, is the context. In April, ABC's Robin Roberts asked Romney: "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" He responded: "Well, there's no question that the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone. You want to have a series of things you want to see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police, and the leadership of the Iraqi government."
Writers from the Associated Press and Time magazine, among others, have suggested Romney's quote does not constitute an endorsement of "secret timetables" for withdrawal. It is a debatable point. If Romney does not actually say, "I support secret timetables for withdrawal," he does seem to endorse such timetables in response to a question about withdrawal. That's important. It was a direct question: "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" If the answer was no, presumably Romney would have said so. He did not.
Romney further muddled things in his response to a follow-up. Roberts said: "So, private. You wouldn't do it publicly? Because the president has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?"
Romney responded: "Well, of course. Can you imagine a setting where during the Second World War we said to the Germans, gee, if we haven't reached the Rhine by this date, why, we'll go home, or if we haven't gotten this accomplished we'll pull up and leave? You don't publish that to your enemy, or they just simply lie in wait until that time. So, of course you have to work together to create timetables and milestones, but you don't do that with the opposition."
Did Romney say he would, like Bush, veto anything with a timetable? Or does the rest of his answer suggest that he's for the timetables as long as they're private? Again, it's debatable.
But to go as far as CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, who claimed that McCain is "lying" about what Romney said, is a stretch. At the time Romney made the comments, many observers, including several reporters, took him to mean exactly what McCain is imputing to him now. If the Romney campaign protested that interpretation, their objections did now show up in any of the follow-up reporting on his comments.
McCain has long believed that Romney hedged on the surge and the war in Iraq. At a debate in Durham, New Hampshire, on September 5, Romney answered a question about the surge by saying, "the surge is apparently working." McCain pounced a moment later. "No, not apparently. It's working." It was one of McCain's strongest debate performances and he points to it as a "seminal" moment in the remarkable turnaround of his campaign.
At dinner the following evening, McCain complained that his Republican rivals were weak on the surge. "Some of these guys are sort of hedging their bets," he said. "Their advisers are telling them: 'Look, don't get too closely tied to it because they may be pulling out in April.' I don't know that for a fact. This is just what we surmise, so I can't attribute it. But I think it's fair to say that the Romney and Giuliani campaigns have tried to distance themselves from this issue. I think it's pretty obvious."
McCain was right. Advisers to Romney and Giuliani were saying almost exactly what he suggested as McCain fought hard--in Congress and with the White House--for victory in Iraq. Their hedging, quite understandably, made him angry.
But he has not always been willing to criticize them directly, usually making vague references to his opponents and their lack of commitment, as he did at the debate on Thursday. And sometimes, he even seems to offer them political cover--if not praise--on the issue. Speaking in front of a large group of reporters after a town hall meeting in Salem, New Hampshire, on January 6, I asked McCain if he considers Romney a "strong supporter of the war in Iraq."
"I do," he said. "I do."
His comments three weeks ago came at a time, immediately before the New Hampshire primary, when McCain was trying to appear above the fray. On the bus today, I reminded him of the exchange and asked him why he would have agreed with the characterization of Romney as a strong supporter of the war in Iraq.
"He was [a strong supporter] later on, once it succeeded. Once it succeeded, then of course, a lot of people got on board when it succeeded. At the time that was crucial, obviously he advocated a course that would have been, in my view, chaos, genocide and the retreat of the United States military."
McCain sharpened his criticism. "The American men and women who are serving, they want a steadfast leader. That's what they want. Not somebody that will change with whatever the prevailing winds are."
Asked if that describes Romney, he said it does. "It's very clear. He's changed positions on virtually every major issue. That's well documented."
All of the skirmishing over Romney's comments in April 2007 has obscured his worst moment on Iraq since the beginning of his campaign--or the beginning of his formal campaign, anyway. It came in December 2006, when the surge was first proposed. In an interview with Human Events, Romney avoided taking a position altogether. He was asked: "One of the people who is considering a run, Sen. McCain, has advocated sending up to 30,000 more troops to help stabilize Iraq. Do you support sending more troops into that country?"
Romney dodged the question. "I'm not going to weigh in. I'm still a governor. I'm not running for national office at this stage. I'm not going to weigh in on specific tactics about whether we should go from 140,000 to 170,000. That's something I expect the President to decide over the next couple of weeks and announce that to the nation. I want to hear what he has to say."
But Romney had done everything but formally announce his candidacy. One day before he claimed that he was not running for national office, the New York Times wrote that Romney (and others) had done so much to build their candidacies that "it would be noteworthy, after all they have done, if they were to announce that they were not running."
The article provided specifics. "Mr. Romney's intentions are also no mystery: he spent 212 days out of state last year, The Boston Globe reported last week, and has methodically moved over the past year to the right side of the Republican ocean." Romney had begun to recruit staff and sign up advisers. He was raising money for Republicans across the country and regularly seeking policy advice. And the reluctance he showed in weighing in on the surge did not keep him from speaking out on many other policy issues.
The inescapable conclusion: Mitt Romney was worried about the political implications of embracing a surge that could fail. So he avoided the question.
McCain wants to frame the decision facing Republican voters as a choice between management and leadership. The Romney evasion on the surge a year ago would have made his point more directly.
Even with the criticism McCain has taken for his recent comments, he has to be pleased. The verbal sparring shifted the debate from the economy, where Romney would like to keep it, to national security, which benefits McCain. In that sense, it's not that important that McCain prove Romney was for secret timetables. The effect is that Romney must now try and prove that he wasn't. Politically, it could be a debate McCain wins simply because they're having it.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.