McCain's Desperation Move

The GOP presidential race finally started to get more interesting with the CNN/YouTube debate this week. Of particular interest to me was John McCain's attack on Ron Paul (video, transcript) over Dr. Paul's alleged isolationism.

Before examining the exchange itself, the first thing we have to consider is why McCain chose to initiate this bit of verbal aggression. Ron Paul is widely regarded as a "minor" candidate who has no chance of winning the nomination. He barely registers in national polls. Since he is not a threat to the so-called "leading" candidates, it would seem smarter to just ignore him. After all, no one went on the attack against Tom Tancredo or Duncan Hunter. From a strictly political perspective, what was McCain trying to accomplish?

We should also note that this was clearly part of McCain's plan for the debate. He had been prepped to look for a chance to go after Ron Paul. His chance came, oddly enough, in response to a question about whether a national sales tax would be a good idea. Rather than give the questioner the courtesy of a full response, McCain changed the subject and launched his well-rehearsed line at Ron Paul. Again, why?

The answer is simple: McCain is losing. He needed to do something dramatic to revive his campaign. The tirade against Ron Paul played to McCain's strength, i.e. his heroic military career and strong-leader image. Appearing on the Laura Ingraham radio show the next day, McCain again went out of his way to strike at Ron Paul. In fact he used almost the very same words; I'll bet he did so in other interviews as well. It was pre-fabricated "outrage."

Whether this tactic will have any impact in the polls remains to be seen. I'm dubious. Anyway, the main message I got from McCain's performance is that he must have had horrible grades in history. What he said was completely wrong. Here it is:

I just want to also say that Congressman Paul, I've heard him now in many debates talk about bringing our troops home, and about the war in Iraq and how it's failed.... And I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II.... We allowed -- we allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement.

It is unusual, to say the least, when someone who routinely attacks liberal because they "blame America first" decides to himself blame the U.S. for nothing less than the rise of Hitler. In fact, anytime any politician says the word "Hitler" it is a good bet they are up to no good.

The truth is that the U.S. had absolutely nothing to do with Hitler's rise. Here are the facts: Hitler came to power in January 1933 when President Hindenburg of Germany appointed him as Chancellor in a perfectly legal manner. After Hindenburg's death in August 1934, the German cabinet decided to leave the presidency vacant and make Hitler the nation's supreme leader, or Fuhrer. This was validated two weeks later in an election that Hitler won with 84.6% of the vote. One could argue that voters were intimidated or ballot boxes rigged, but there is no doubt that Hitler was very popular at the time and would have won anyway.

What exactly is it that McCain thinks the U.S. should have done about Hitler? Tell Hindenburg who he was supposed to appoint as Chancellor? Force the German people to vote for someone else was more to our liking? Invade the Rhineland? Please. You don't have to be an isolationist to recognize how crazy this is.

Yes, Hitler turned out to be a bad guy and in hindsight it might have saved a lot of lives to remove him earlier. No one knew that at the time. If McCain wants U.S. policy to be that we do whatever it takes to keep every country in the world from installing as its leader anyone who might someday somehow become a threat to the U.S., then he's going to keep the Pentagon mighty busy.

It's not "isolationist" to say that "we don't attack nations that haven't attacked us." It's common sense. The United States is not an empire. We defend ourselves when threatened, but in 1933-34 Hitler wasn't threatening us. Right up until Pearl Harbor he actually tried very hard not to provoke the U.S. while he dealt with his European enemies. In December 1941 both Japan and Germany declared war on the U.S. We responded and the rest is history.

This episode leaves us with two possible lessons about John McCain. Either he is ignorant about the facts of the greatest war this nation has ever fought - which ought to disqualify him from being a wartime president - or he is willing to re-write history in order to manipulate the public for his own political gain. Neither alternative makes him look very good.

Having said all that, I commend McCain for what he said about torture. This is a subject on which he has tremendous moral authority, and it's sad that so few of his Republican colleagues are willing to listen to him when he says things like waterboarding is torture.

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