So one senator John McCain said today in advance of something tomorrow which can be summed up very simply:
With Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to testify before Congress on Tuesday, all three presidential candidates will have an opportunity to ask questions — McCain and Clinton on the Armed Services Committee in the morning, Obama on the Foreign Relations Committee in the afternoon.
And finally, things fully dovetail as they were going to inevitably do anyway — and it won’t be for the last time.
My broken-record (skipping-CD? corrupted-file?) observations about what will determine this election in the end remain unchanged, but what we’ve been waiting on is a combination of some sort of direct comments in the political theater as opposed to campaign speeches and debates as well as an observation of an intriguing dynamic that will be played out to one extent or another the following year. The combination is here, at last.
To talk about the dynamic first — Petraeus, through a combination of events, is going to be facing all three of his future bosses on Tuesday, not something he hasn’t done before at all but this is the first time where it’s all clear that it will be the case (for perspective, keep in mind that the last time he testified, Giuliani was theoretically running away with the nomination in a heartbeat). He is not the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course, but it has been noted that the working relationship between him and the current president is a bit out of the ordinary in its direct closeness — and there’s a question as to whether that would continue or not at this point. With McCain, it would be likely; with either Clinton or Obama, less so — a pat conclusion but also an accurate one.
Had things been continuing on the up and up in Iraq tomorrow’s events would be a bit more set in stone, but at present things are in a muddle — not a collapse, but a muddle. If anything, whether it’s in a combination of halting troop withdrawals and increasingly public mutterings from folks in the Pentagon about the Army needing some sort of service break in particular or just another dully familiar observation of death in Iraq — we’re talking airstrikes and gun battles in Baghdad again — the optimists are sounding more hollow than they have been in a while. Thus McCain’s invocation of things like “the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests and the future of the Middle East” — the usual boilerplate, unsurprising, and meant to jolt everyone into recognizing the ‘truth’ of the matter, when the terrible fact of the matter is all this talk has simply become a background shrug. McCain can’t keep the politics out of his approach no matter what he says, which is in part the point.
But neither will Clinton or Obama, of course. So the comments they will inevitably make are going to be aimed at the voters just as much as McCain’s will be, but even more importantly will be aimed at a Pennsylvania audience — which may sound cynical, but what else does one expect at this point? It’ll be part of the campaigning in the run up to their primary by default, and any sort of slip or confrontation will result in plenty of egg on the face. Such a political disaster is unlikely to happen, but it will be capitalized on if it does, and it might be out of their control in any event. On that front, McCain has little to worry about — he can blithely act as the prospective nominee he is, the one who was ‘right’ on Iraq, and cadge more points among the conservative skeptics as he can.
So the ‘nation’s interests’ aren’t going to be placed before anything here, really — it’s part and parcel, the idea being that all three are aiming to present themselves as the best person to help said interests. Ultimately I’m not expecting much — it’s going to be the next time Petraeus appears before Congress which will be of interest. It will be before the November election, two out of the three will be facing him across the table once again (a slight pity that, as looks likely, said two will be the ones on different panels — a joint appearance would have the function of a further debate appearance without softball questions), and it will be after a long, hot summer that I’m not looking forward to, and in which the key question of if remaining in Iraq is worth it will be more hotly debated than before.
This is the dress rehearsal. Or even, in many ways, the real opening act, finally arrived.