A blistering economic crisis may be the all-encompassing issue of the moment.
But the war in Iraq still defines the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama.
McCain remains the true believer in that occupation, the man who really does want to carry it forward until some ill-defined “victory” is obtained – even if that takes a hundred years.
Obama remains the doubter who — as he went out of his way to note in Friday night’s first debate between the two men who would be president — spoke out against launching the war six years ago and remains committed to drawing it down.
These were the bottom lines of a debate that could have been all about economics but that ultimately ended up being a very serious, and at times very edgy, discourse about war and peace.
McCain called Iraq “the central issue of our time.”
At the very least, it was the central issue of the debate.
The Republican said his Democratic rival “just doesn’t understand” the importance of staying the course in the Middle East.
Obama argued that McCain lacks “the broader strategic vision” necessary to make the United States a functional player on the global stage – and at home. And he suggested that the Republican’s misread of the Iraq question all the way back in 2002, as well as McCain’s ongoing refusal to recognize his error, confirmed his opponent’s deficiency.
“The fundamental question is whether we should have gone into Iraq in the first place,” Obama declared.
“If the question is who is the best equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military,” the Democrat continued, “then I think we can take a look at our judgment.”
McCain, who constantly tried to suggest that Obama was naïve, argued that, “The next president of the United States will not have to address the issue of whether or not we should have gone into Iraq.”
“The issue is when we leave and how we leave,” said the Republican.
McCain was right about that, as was evidenced by a poignant clash between the candidates over the meaning of the bracelets they wear to honor soldiers killed in the conflict.
McCain said he wore a memorial bracelet – given to him by the mother of a soldier in New Hampshire — to remind himself that deaths would be in vain if the war was not seen through to “victory.”