In July 2007, pollsters for the New York Times and CBS News
asked respondents to name the issues most important to them as they
considered which candidate they would support for president. The top
choice for both Republicans and Democrats was national security--Iraq
for Democrats, terrorism for Republicans.
That was then. Today national security has virtually disappeared from the presidential campaign. In a New York Times/CBS
poll taken in mid-October, 57 percent of respondents cited the economy
as their top issue. Only 9 percent cited terrorism, and 7 percent cited
the Iraq war.
These results are hardly surprising. The housing market is in
tatters, a Republican administration is aggressively defending its
decision to partially nationalize America's biggest banks, and nearly
every economist in the prognostication business is saying that the
United States is heading toward a severe recession.
But the shift remains stunning. For seven years, the country has been obsessed with national security. The New York Times
carried more extensive coverage of the Iraqi elections in 2005 than
statewide contests in the United States. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad became
a household name. So did David Petraeus. And as late as this spring,
national security issues helped decide the nominees of both political
parties. Barack Obama won, in no small part, because primary voters
believed that he was more sincerely antiwar than the other Democrats
running, especially Hillary Clinton. And John McCain won largely
because voters believed he would be a better commander in chief than
his Republican counterparts.
Judging from his remarks to an enthusiastic crowd in Dallas, Texas,
on the March night he passed the 1,191 delegate mark needed to make him
the GOP nominee, McCain expected--or, perhaps, hoped--that national
security issues would play a major role in determining the next
president. After thanking his supporters and speaking broadly about
public service, McCain moved right to national security.
Presidential candidates are judged on their records, their character
and the whole of their life experiences. But we are also expected to
concentrate our efforts on the challenges that will confront America on
our watch and explain how we intend to address them. America is at war
in two countries, and involved in a long and difficult fight with
violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself.
McCain defended the decision to remove Saddam Hussein and spoke of
the need to win in Iraq, where "our most vital security interests" are
involved. He said that a mismanaged exit could result in sectarian
conflict, even genocide. He warned about terrorist attacks with
"weapons we dare not allow" terrorists to possess and called for a
stronger allied effort against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
He was not finished.
The next president must lead an effort to restructure our military, our
intelligence, our diplomacy and all relevant branches of government to
combat Islamic extremism, encourage the vast majority of moderates to
win the battle for the soul of Islam, and meet the many other rising
challenges in this changing world.
McCain did mention the economy and health care and jobs. But it was
clear then that he saw a president's duties as commander in chief as
more important than any other role.
McCain still believes this, but his campaign does not reflect his
view, and his advisers seem to have convinced him that it is unwise to
talk about anything other than the economy. Last weekend, in an
appearance on Fox News Sunday, McCain was asked what the
country might look like under four years of an Obama presidency with a
Democratic Congress. It was a broad question, but McCain, who has made
his reputation on national security and foreign policy issues, spoke
exclusively about the economy.
In an interview aboard his campaign plane that same day, October 19, I noted the oversight and asked him about his answer.
TWS: Have we gotten to the point where it's almost dangerous to talk about foreign policy and national security?
MCCAIN: No, not at all. But it's obvious that the economy is in
crisis and that's what Americans really care about today and they are
in a ditch. I don't have--you know you can only give so much in an
answer--but obviously national security I mention in my speeches. We're
in two wars, very dangerous times. And I mention in my speeches that
Senator Obama would bring our troops home in defeat, and I'll bring 'em
home in honor and victory. Right now, with people having trouble
staying in their homes, keeping their jobs--we've lost over 700,000
jobs already this year--Americans, and I understand it, are focused on
Later in our conversation, McCain responded to a question
about Iran's nuclear program by warning that failed diplomacy makes an
Israeli strike against Iran more likely and that such an attack "could
create a situation of crisis in the Middle East that is heretofore of
So I tried again.
TWS: One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview is my sense that
we in the national media sometimes switch topics and focus on one
thing. And I think it's striking the lack of discussion of these issues
at this time. Do you agree with that, or do you think we have to focus
on the economy as we have?
MCCAIN: I think that there are major national security challenges we
face. But, like at the beginning of our conversation, people are having
trouble staying in their homes, can't keep their jobs, can't afford
their health care. I think it's understandable a person would say
what's happening halfway around the world is not as important to me as
my family's economic security. I think it's unfortunate, but I think
You know when we do these groups of Americans and say we're going to
win in Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan. Hey great! If you ask them what
priority one through ten are--the top nine are economic. We were just
in Toledo. Houses all over Toledo are being foreclosed and abandoned.
I asked McCain if he still would make good on his pledge to hold a
National Security Council meeting as the first thing he would do after
being sworn in.
Oh yeah, I think we'd still have to do that--the security of the
nation, even if the American people aren't entirely focused on it. You
have to do that. But at the same time you have to assemble the best
minds on the economic issues.
At other times in the interview, McCain directly answered my
questions about threats, and he answered them well. (His denunciation
of the Bush administration's new deal on North Korea was particularly
stirring.) But, ironically, it was clear that McCain--who last year
told the Wall Street Journal, "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues"--wanted to be talking about economics.
At roughly the same time I spoke with McCain, Democratic vice
presidential candidate Joe Biden was rather inexplicably making
national security relevant again.
"Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests
Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy," Biden said at a Seattle
fundraiser. "The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant
47-year-old senator president of the United States of America."
He added: "Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember
anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis,
a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
The McCain campaign pounced, putting out several press releases
about Biden's outburst and, later in the week, holding conference calls
with McCain surrogates like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani
and former CIA director Jim Woolsey. Both McCain and Palin highlighted
Biden's comments in their stump speeches. "We don't want a president
who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in
crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars," McCain said.
"Yesterday Senator Obama tried to explain away this warning by saying
that his running-mate sometimes engages in 'rhetorical flourishes.'
That's another way of saying that he accidentally delivered some
That same day, the McCain campaign released an ad focused on Biden's
comments and touting McCain's national security credentials. Including
national security as part of McCain's closing argument is long overdue.
No one argues that McCain should ignore the economy, but some McCain
advisers point to the fact that national security issues are the only
ones in which McCain continues to hold a sizeable polling advantage
over Obama. They have been making the case internally that McCain
should broaden his message. He's doing it now, but is it too late?