Arizona Sen. John McCain, the early front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, had a potential John Connally/Mike Dukakis/John Kerry moment earlier this month, and hardly anyone seems to have noticed.
What McCain did was make some disturbing informal remarks to the Israeli daily Haaretz – informal only in the sense that as a still undeclared candidate, his comments, as Haaretz’s Amir Oren wrote, "reflect the personal opinion of a senior and influential figure in the area of defense policy in the United States Senate, rather than an attempt to formulate policy guidelines for his administration."
McCain told Haaretz that as president, he would "micromanage" U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians and would dispatch "the smartest guy I know" to the region, presumably to jump-start a new push for a comprehensive accord.
Asked who that "smartest guy" might be, McCain responded: "Brent Scowcroft, or James Baker, though I know that you in Israel don’t like Baker."
McCain foresaw "concessions and sacrifices by both sides" and indicated that Israel would be expected to "Defend itself and keep evacuating." Asked whether that meant "movement toward the June 4, 1967 armistice lines, with minor modifications," McCain, reported Haaretz, "nodded in the affirmative."
McCain’s statements are jarring not only because they reflect the view, long championed by the State Department and both the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic party, that the U.S. can somehow "micromanage" a fair and equitable Mideast peace (code for unilateral Israeli concessions, since the Palestinians have nothing concrete to concede), but as well for the almost cavalier dismissal of concerns about an interlocutor on the order of a James Baker.
(McCain’s mention of Scowcroft, whose Mideast views and chilly attitude toward Israel are indistinguishable from those usually attributed to Baker, is equally instructive and should serve as one more caveat for McCain supporters in the pro-Israel community.)
Judging from the Mideast-related mishaps of previous high-profile presidential wannabes, the reaction to McCain’s comments would have been far less muted had he made them later in the campaign cycle (the first presidential primaries are still some 20 months away and McCain, as noted by Amir Oren, hasn’t officially declared his candidacy). Time will tell whether his remarks in Haaretz were an aberration or a harbinger.
McCain’s reference to James Baker was especially curious given the flurry of criticism that descended on John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign when the Massachusetts senator told the Council on Foreign Relations that if elected president he would appoint the "uniquely qualified" Jimmy Carter, James Baker or Bill Clinton as his Middle East peace envoy.
Kerry only made things worse when he claimed afterward – despite evidence to the contrary in the "as prepared for delivery" version of the speech posted on his own website – that the offending passage had been inserted into the speech at the last minute by staffers.
Michael Dukakis was another candidate who stumbled badly when attempting to lay out a Mideast policy. Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in April 1988, the Democratic Massachusetts governor appeared unfamiliar with basic Israeli history and unsure of where he stood on a variety of important issues. Many in the audience of Jewish leaders pronounced themselves decidedly unimpressed, and the next day’s Daily News article on the meeting was headlined "Duke is milk and honey, and waffle."
Kerry and Dukakis both went on to win their party’s nomination, though both had their White House hopes dashed by men named George Bush. John Connally didn’t even come close. The Democrat-turned-Republican former Texas governor gave a speech in October 1979 to the Washington Press Club in which he demanded that Israel halt what he called its "creeping annexation of the West Bank" and return all territory captured in 1967.
Connally was lambasted by conservatives and liberals alike (times certainly have changed), and his once promising presidential campaign quickly withered.
Within days of Connally's speech, two prominent Jewish members of the Connally campaign committee quit and the New York Republican Committee rescinded an invitation for Connally to address its Lincoln Day event. Connally campaign chair Winton Blount called the fallout over the speech "devastating."
Wrote New York Times columnist William Safire: "After John Connally's speech last week, supporters of Israel – along with many others concerned with noisy U.S. weakness in the face of Soviet military and Arab economic threats – made a reassessment of Ronald Reagan and decided he looked ten years younger."
By the time Connally dropped out of the primaries, he’d spent $11 million and won the support of exactly one Republican convention delegate.