COMMENTARY | Four years ago, Sen. John McCain made a fateful statement that gave his opponents ammunition to weaken him on his strength: foreign policy. By leaving the door open to an American force in Afghanistan past 2014 at the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan may have made a similar mistake.
Early in the 2008 campaign, McCain was asked how long Americans might stay in Iraq. “Maybe 100 (years),” said the Arizona politician. “As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it’s fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day.”
When Obama pounced on the line, McCain defended it. You don’t tell your opponent your strategy, McCain insisted during the campaign. It may have been a good idea for foreign policy strategists, but not for electoral politics. Voters don’t want to hear how our soldiers are going to be sent abroad for decades in an engagement. And even those without loved ones to serve abroad for so long, the financial cost to taxpayers was difficult to swallow.
That’s why McCain struggled on issues he should have won. He lost the first debate, on foreign policy, at the University of Mississippi, by a lopsided score. Promising an interminable end to war didn’t win him votes then or now.
That’s where Rep. Paul Ryan’s line from the vice presidential debate comes into play. While Vice President Joe Biden clung to a 2014 withdrawal deadline, Ryan was more ambiguous. He left that date of withdrawal open, implying we could be in Afghanistan a lot longer under a Romney administration.
When Biden jumped on the comments, Ryan followed the McCain model, sticking to his guns that we wouldn’t tell the enemy when we’d leave. Biden focused on having a firm deadline to force the Afghan government to step up to the plate, rather than rely on Americans to clean up any messes.
I watched CNN’s real-time focus group responses at the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Undecided voters loved Biden’s response, but were flat on Ryan’s answers. Americans don’t want to stay in Afghanistan now that Osama bin Laden is dead, by a 2:1 margin. If Democrats are smart, they should exploit Ryan’s mistake on Afghanistan, the way they did against McCain on Iraq.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.