His appalling Times interview about the Iraq war.
Sen. John McCain has been careening his Straight-Talk Express all over the highway in recent months, but late last week, he finally slammed it into the guardrail, plunged over the cliff, and went splat in the big muddy.
The moment of self-destruction came in a front-page interview for the Sunday, April 15, New York Times. Talking about the war in Iraq, McCain said, "I have no Plan B"—no alternative to winning.
But then, in the next paragraph, Times reporters Michael Gordon and Adam Nagourney write that he did talk about a Plan B, of sorts, after all:
He said that if the Bush administration's plan had not produced visible signs of progress by the time a McCain presidency began, he might be forced—if only by the will of public opinion—to end American involvement in Iraq.
"I do believe that history shows us Americans will not continue to support an overseas engagement involving the loss of American lives for an unlimited period unless they see some success," he said. "And then, when they run out of patience, they will demand that we get out."
Why is this so jaw-dropping? Keep in mind that, on April 11, McCain had delivered a high-profile speech at the Virginia Military Institute in which he denounced the Democrats' plan for a troop withdrawal as "reckless"—a game of "small politics" that "gives them an advantage in the next election" while denying "our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat."
And yet, here was McCain, a few days later, telling the Times that, if elected president, he'd probably do pretty much the same thing.
To the Republican base, McCain thumps his chest, defends his president, accuses the Democrats of cheering for surrender, and rejects all options other than victory—"No Plan B." However, he adds, in a stage whisper, "Elect me, and if things in Iraq haven't improved by then, I'll pull the troops out, too." Not only is he playing to both sides of the issue, he's doing so in two particularly distasteful ways.
First, he's pretending that he's the exact opposite of the type who would play politics on such a vital matter. "I'd rather lose a campaign than a war," he said at VMI. The Times interview suggests otherwise.
Second, McCain doesn't even accept responsibility for his equivocation. He tells the Times that he'd pull out because the American people will "run out of patience" and "demand that we get out." Essentially, he's saying that he'll stand up to public opinion as long as he's running for president—yet cave in to it after he's elected.
To put it another way, he's a stalwart for the war as long as he has to appeal only to hard-core Republicans (who still support the war)—yet he'll accede to reality (and the views of the broader American public) after he's cleared that hurdle and won the party's nomination.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sen. John McCain by Scott Olson/Getty Images.