If you watch the Republican presidential candidates debate, one of the names you don't hear very often is that of President George Bush. And even though Arizona Senator John McCain has expressed his strong support for Bush's so-called "troop surge" in Iraq, the two-time Republican presidential candidate steered well clear of mentioning the sitting president Monday night (December 3) during his MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue.
Instead, the fiery 71-year-old candidate provided the students of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester with a virtual history lesson in American foreign policy, touching on nearly every conflict in the past century as a means of hammering home the point that he has the knowledge and experience to lead the country during perilous times.
"I'm not the youngest candidate in this race, you know that, but I am the most experienced," McCain said at the beginning of the Dialogue. "I'm older than Frankenstein and I've got a few scars ... and I'm older than dirt and I've more scars than Frankenstein ... screwed up that line," he laughed, tripping over one of his standard stump lines. "My main reason for running for president is because I want to make you safe. I want to give you a safer world ... both security-wise, as we are in two wars as we speak."
The first Republican to take part in the MTV/MySpace dialogues, McCain — who has weathered a difficult year on the campaign trail littered with the defection of key aides, low poll numbers and fundraising shortfalls — handled questions ranging from the war in Iraq to education, the genocide in Darfur and his willingness to have Democrats serve in his Cabinet. He also made a point of setting himself apart from many of his Republican presidential rivals by expressing his support for stem-cell research, despite his pro-life stance, and adamantly stressing the need to combat global warming now.
Unlike the previous candidates, McCain came wearing a tie — though he wore a blazer and slacks, and not a traditional suit. But his answers seemed a bit more scripted than those of former Dialogue participants and Democratic hopefuls John Edwards and Barack Obama. The one point he stressed repeatedly throughout the one-hour event, though, was that his policies were meant not for his generation, but for those sitting in the room with him Monday night.
"My friends, I believe that climate change is real," McCain said, using the folksy greeting he'd repeat often during the night. "I believe we are in danger of handing off to you a damaged planet." McCain said he's seen the damage done to the Earth at places like Antarctica, and he pledged to support green technologies like wind, solar, tide and battery-powered hybrid cars. And, in a stance he suspected would not go over well with the audience, he even voiced his support of the use of more nuclear power, which he argued has worked well to provide 80 percent of France's energy.
Security and the future of America's youngest voters were recurring themes during the evening. "I'm running because I believe I am the most qualified because of my experience and knowledge, which leads to judgment," he said forcefully, before accidentally saying that three weeks ago late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein released a new audio tape when he meant Osama bin Laden. Quickly correcting himself, McCain promised that he knows how to win the global fight against radical Islamic extremism. "I know how to make America safe," he said. "I have been involved in national-security issues for the last 20 years. I've led and I've served. I will always give you straight talk. ... My first priority is to keep you and your children safe."
As in past events, the forum, moderated by Gideon Yago and John Norris — with poll results and questions also being sent McCain's way in real time by WashingtonPost.com political reporter Chris Cillizza — was a mixture of live and IM'd questions from students in one of the key early primary states and online users. The unscripted forum featured live instant polling from the Flektor tool, which gave McCain immediate feedback on how the online audience was feeling about his answers. And, showing a bit of his trademark gritty sense of humor, McCain acted as if the lighting-fast feedback from Cillizza was more than a small annoyance, jokingly referring to the "lousy statistics."
Asked if he would ever attack another Middle Eastern nation, such as Syria or Iran, if they went nuclear, McCain gave a measured response, saying he would carefully consider whether military action was needed and consult with Congress and the American people first. He responded to a question from a home-schooled senior about the failings of the American public-school system by saying that as president he would put an emphasis on competition among public, private and charter schools in order to raise the quality of all educational institutions.
One of the night's most emotional topics was the war in Iraq, and McCain stressed that his recent trips to Iraq prove to him that the "surge" is working, but only after four years of a conflict he described as a "train wreck" that had been horribly mismanaged. "This new strategy is succeeding but it's still been at a great cost," he said. "I really believe that this success has got to be greeted with caution and with a little optimism. Democracies are not easy. There are no Thomas Jeffersons in Iraq."
One thing McCain would not do, he pledged, given the disparity he saw in the war in Vietnam — in which many of the soldiers were plucked from America's poorest families while the rich stayed home — would be to reinstitute a draft. He is a Vietnam vet.
McCain became most animated when Cillizza asked him a question about fellow Republican candidate and war critic Congressman Ron Paul reportedly raising more money than any other candidates from the ranks of the armed forces. "I don't know the fact concerning more contributions from men and women in active duty, it may be accurate," he said. "But I visit them too much and hear from them too much. ... They aren't fighting over there for oil and they aren't fighting for empire and they aren't fighting illegally. They're fighting because they want America to be safe, or they wouldn't be out there putting their lives on the line. Frankly, Congressman Ron Paul is wrong."
While he didn't openly bash Bush, McCain made their differences known often, saying he would have protected the value of the now-fallen dollar by not spending as freely as the Bush administration; would not have listened to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the invasion of Iraq; and, most pointedly, would have done more on global warming. In addition to his belief that global warming is a real, major threat, McCain said he is in favor of the United States joining the 2005 Kyoto Protocol concerning global climate change, of which Bush has not agreed to be a part. McCain said, however, that he would not agree to sign on until two of the world's fastest-emerging polluters, India and China, signed on as well.
Asked if he would ever consider offering Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton a spot on his ticket as vice president, McCain expressed his admiration for the former first lady but offered a stern "no" to the bipartisan prospect. "I know her well, and I appreciate her work," McCain said. "But we just have different philosophies." He would, he said, absolutely consider having "Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians or vegetarians" in his Cabinet if it would make for a stronger America.
In fact, that part of McCain's message was one he returned to several times, including in his closing statement: the importance of service. "After 9/11, my friends, I would not have asked the American people to go shopping or take a trip," he said, making a dig at a statement made by Bush in the wake of the attacks. "I would have asked every single American to find a way to serve their country."
In conclusion, he added that he didn't expect that everyone in the room or watching online or on TV would vote for him, but that "the most important thing for me is that you get involved in this campaign. Go to the polls, go to the rallies, go to the events, and most of all, maybe consider running for public office yourself sometime. ... The leadership of this country will be directly related to your choices."