In Balancing Act on National Security, a Stumble

June 25, 2008
Political Memo

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — It was the journalist Michael Kinsley who changed Washington’s understanding of gaffes with his observation that a gaffe occurs not when someone lies, but when they say what they really think.

And more than a few politicians and pundits were put in mind of the classic Kinsleyian gaffe this week after Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Senator John McCain, was quoted in a magazine interview saying that another terrorist attack in the United States would “be a big advantage” for Mr. McCain in the upcoming election.

Mr. McCain immediately disavowed the remark on Monday, saying: “I cannot imagine why he would say it. It’s not true.” And Mr. Black quickly announced that he “deeply” regretted the remark. But on some level Mr. Black’s assertion was the logical extension — if somewhat tackily and impoliticly expressed — of the McCain campaign’s premise that Mr. McCain is best suited to keep the nation safe from terror.

Making that case, of course, can be a balancing act, the challenge being how to position Mr. McCain as the candidate who will keep people safe without seeming to be baldly exploiting people’s fears — a balance that has not always been struck in recent political campaigns. The Obama campaign struck back hard, questioning the premise that the Republicans who favored invading Iraq have expertise in fighting terrorism and labeling Mr. Black’s remark as part of a “cynical and divisive brand of politics.”

“The fact that John McCain’s top adviser says that a terrorist attack on American soil would be a ‘big advantage’ for their political campaign is a complete disgrace and is exactly the kind of politics that needs to change,” Bill Burton, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama, said in a statement. “Barack Obama will turn the page on these failed policies and this cynical and divisive brand of politics so that we can unite this nation around a common purpose to finish the fight against al Qaeda.”

The controversy erupted Monday, when Fortune magazine ran an article about Mr. McCain in which Mr. Black was quoted as saying that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an “unfortunate event” which helped the campaign in New Hampshire because “it reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be commander-in-chief.” The magazine added that when it asked Mr. Black about the effect of another domestic terror attack, he conceded “with startling candor” that it would help Mr. McCain, quoting him as saying, “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him.”

The McCain campaign was hardly the only one to use the assassination of Ms. Bhutto during the New Hampshire primary to try to turn the public’s attention to terrorism. Rudolph W. Giuliani ran an advertisement during the primary with footage of the recently assassinated Ms. Bhutto. “A nuclear power in chaos,” the announcer intoned. ”Madmen bent on creating it. Leaders assassinated. Democracy attacked. And Osama bin Laden still making threats. In a world where the next crisis is a moment away, America needs a leader who’s ready.” Mr. Giuliani finished fourth in New Hampshire.

In recent days, the McCain campaign has been speaking more starkly about terrorism in trying to frame its general election debate against Mr. Obama.

Mr. McCain often tries on the stump to paint Mr. Obama as inexperienced or lacking understanding of the threats facing the nation. But the language has grown stronger since the Supreme Court ruled this month that the detainees at Guantánamo Bay have habeas corpus rights, a decision Mr. Obama praised while Mr. McCain opposed.

Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s top foreign policy and national security adviser, charged in a conference call with reporters that Mr. Obama was displaying a ”Sept. 10 mindset” about how best to fight terrorism — a comment that echoed President Bush’s attacks on Senator John Kerry during the 2004 election.

Mr. Scheunemann predicted — accurately — that the Democrats would bemoan his remarks as a return to what has become known as “the politics of fear.”

The Democrats have seemed to welcome the debate this year, both on policy and politics. They have been countering that by embracing the Iraq war, Mr. McCain and the Republicans took their eye off the real terrorist threat: Al Qaeda. Mr. Obama said that the Republicans lack standing to criticize him on terrorism. “These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could’ve pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11,” he said recently.

And it was politically telling that on Tuesday — after many of the morning television news shows dwelled on the controversy over Mr. Black’s remarks, some with slow-motion footage of Mr. Black walking down the stairs as he exited the McCain campaign plane — that it was the Democrats who sought to keep the issue alive.

The Obama campaign had a conference call Tuesday with Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the Sept. 11 Commission, who said, “I think the remarks were so out of place that they call for some recalibration in the thinking and perhaps a greater adherence to principle here in staying away from the politics of fear.”

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