For Obama, the greatest vulnerability he faces in the debate over Iraq is his position on the surge, which has long been supremely squirrelly. (From a refusal to acknowledge that it was working to a bogus claim that he always believed that it would do so to his statement recently to Bill O’Reilly that it has “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”) It would certainly be powerful if Obama admitted that he was wrong initially—coupled with an explicit contrast with McCain and Bush and their stubborn refusal to consider new facts and concede error in light of them. But such an admission would be dicey, especially when some strategists see McCain’s surge advocacy as a declining asset. “The public is giving McCain some credit for it, but they still want to get the fuck out of Iraq, and with him, that’s no sure thing,” says a GOP operative. “The surge is a book, but it’s a book we’ve read. Obama needs to turn the page.”
For McCain, by contrast, the two prime areas of weakness are his judgment and temperament—both of which Obama singled out for criticism at the convention. “What Obama needs to make clear in the debate is McCain has no larger strategic vision, that he responds viscerally to every immediate situation with the same level of anxiety,” says a Democratic strategist. “Georgia-Russia is only the most recent example. He said that was the first serious crisis since the Cold War. Really? What happened to 9/11? The threat of Muslim extremism? He usually says that is the most significant issue since World War II! So? Which is it? The guy can’t distinguish between the moderately serious (Georgia is such a case, just a classic big-power landgrab), the important, and the world-changing. He’s just a hotheaded fighter pilot: a nicer but still pointed way should be found for Obama to say that, right in his face.”
A posture that confrontational would be out of character for the hopemonger. But what he can do is find a way to expose the troubling centrality of military engagement to McCain’s foreign-policy vision. On countless occasions, he has informed audiences with calm certitude that more combat is in America’s future. By pointing these remarks out, as well as his various Cold War–ish pronouncements—“Today, we are all Georgians”—Obama can paint a picture of recklessness without getting personal. “Obama has been pretty clear that he believes that bellicosity isn’t a substitute for a foreign policy,” Axelrod says. “And McCain’s impulse is that. In that respect, he may be worse than Bush. His public temperament as it relates to foreign policy is a real concern, and one we will not shy away from raising.”
The question is how McCain would react to such baiting. But at least one person who knows him well thinks it’s possible that he could be induced into a debate-defining—maybe even election-defining—gaffe. “On the willingness to go to war, I don’t know that McCain would even argue the point with Obama,” this person says. “Challenging him in that way could be a win-win for Obama. The country’s not in a mood for another war, and John sees it as a weakness to say anything otherwise.”
There are, to be sure, even darker places that Obama could go: raising McCain’s many recent senior moments, from his confusion of the Sunnis and the Shiites to his saying that Pakistan borders Iraq to his apparent befuddlement last week over the identity of Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (which occasioned an AP story with this priceless lead: “John McCain either doesn’t want to meet Spain’s prime minister anytime soon or isn’t quite sure who he is”). But that course, too, carries risks. “You don’t want to make McCain a figure of sympathy,” says one longtime strategist. “All Obama has do is break even in this debate. A draw is a victory for him here.”
And no doubt that’s true—though I, for one, am praying that Obama and his people aren’t approaching the debate with such complacency. The signal foible of the Obama campaign thus far has been excessive caution. But even after Obama’s bounceback, the race remains too close to call. The same newly minted toughness he displayed on the economy last week would serve him well in the debate on foreign policy. With just six weeks to go, there is no longer any margin for missed opportunities—and McCain’s foreign policy is a golden one, a soft target waiting to be bombed.