Republican frontrunner John McCain last week accused his opponent Mitt Romney of supporting timetables for withdrawal from Iraq earlier this year.
Specifically, McCain said, “Gov. Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal [from Iraq] similar to what the Democrats are seeking, which would have led to a victory by al Qaeda in my view.”
McCain relies on one quote that Romney said about seven months ago in a television interview. In answer to the question of timetables for the war in Iraq, Romney said the President and Prime Minister Al-Maliki should have “a series of timetables and milestones” to speak about in private.
“You don’t want to the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone,” Romney said. His comment made no mention of specific withdrawal dates.
In another statement, McCain compared Romney to the Democrats, saying, “If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher.”
In Wednesday’s Republican debate, McCain pulled out the accusation again. Here’s an excerpt from the CNN debate:
HOOK: Yes. I’d like to start with Governor Romney.
Obviously, Iraq is still a major issue in this campaign, and over the last few days there’s been a real back-and-forth going on here. Senator McCain has said over and over again that you supported a timetable for a phased withdrawal from Iraq.
Is that true?
ROMNEY: Absolutely, unequivocal — if I can get that word out — unequivocably, absolutely no. I have never, ever supported a specific timetable for exit from Iraq. And it’s offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have.
And I have noted that everyone from Time magazine to Bill Bennett over there to actually CNN’s own analysts, he said it was a lie and it’s absolutely wrong.
I do not support that, never have. We’ve had — we’ve — and Senator McCain pointed to an interview I had back in April with ABC, when I said that our president and their prime minister should have timetables and milestones.
We have timetables and milestones for progress that we’re making together. But I never suggested a date specific to withdraw and, actually, she asked me a question and that question was: “If Congress were to give you a date specific for withdrawal, would you, Senator, veto it?” I said I’d veto it.
I’m opposed to setting a specific date for withdrawal. By the way, we’ve had, since that time, 10-12 debates. Senator McCain never raised that question in any of those debates.
If he ever wondered what my position was, he could have raised it. I instead have pointed out time and time again, and let me make it absolutely clear again tonight, I will not pull our troops out until we have brought success in Iraq, and that means, for me, that we do not have safe havens for Al Qaida or Hezbollah or anyone else, that our troops have secured the population from that kind of threat, that they will not have safe havens from which they could launch attacks against us.
And if there’s any misunderstanding, those words should make it perfectly clear, as have every single debate that I’ve attended…
Even after this strong denial, McCain renewed the charge. Here’s another part of the debate:
COOPER: Senator McCain, tough words.
MCCAIN: Well, of course, he said he wanted a timetable. Before that, we have to understand that we lost the 2006 election and the Democrats thought that they had a mandate. They thought they had a mandate to get us out of Iraq.
And I was prepared to sacrifice whatever was necessary in order to stand up for what I believed in.
McCain stuck with the charge even after moderator Anderson Cooper challenged him with the actual quote:
COOPER: So, Senator McCain, the quote is from Governor Romney on GMA that you’ve been quoting. The actual quote is, “Well, there’s no question that the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones”…
MCCAIN: Timetables and milestones.
COOPER: … “that they speak about, but those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement. You don’t want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone.”
The quote — and Sen. McCain’s argument attached to it — don’t connect. Romney was speaking of one thing and McCain wanted it to be something else, so he simply ignored what Romney said and kept arguing.
Romney has since called it a “false accusation” and a “dirty trick.” During the CNN, LA Times and Politico-sponsored debate, Romney said he has, “never, ever supported a specific timetable.”
Newspapers across the country have denounced the charge as ridiculous. The AP called it a “distortion” and the Washington Post fact checker said “McCain has distorted the meaning of a nine-month old quote from Romney.”
As Romney pointed out, there have been at least 10 or 12 debates since the “timetables” quote and McCain didn’t mention it until now. What McCain thought he could use as political ammunition against his opponent has become a gun turned the other way.
John McCain’s credibility is already low with conservatives. How can he repair it by making false charges such as this?