Starting Gate: McCain's Undertow

(AP)
After John McCain effectively wrapped up the Republican nomination, he paid a highly public visit to the White House to receive the blessing of his party's leader for the last four years. Since then, McCain has done everything he can to erase that image of the two standing together in front of the White House.

McCain took a barrage of criticism from conservative radio hosts for supporting the view that climate change is a challenge that needs to be addressed. He's taken road trips to places that probably haven't seen a Republican presidential candidate in decades. McCain has gladly accepted Bush's help raising money, as he did yesterday in Arizona – but behind closed doors.

But no matter how much McCain tries to distance himself from a president with historically low approval ratings though, there's one issue on which they will forever be linked – the war in Iraq. Despite his early and frequent criticisms of the conduct of the war, McCain has been a staunch advocate of it. McCain says he would win in Iraq and accuses Barack Obama of wanting to "surrender" there.

Enter former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, whose accusations made in a new book about the selling of the war are sure to make life all the more uncomfortable for McCain.

McClellan charges (among other things) that the war in Iraq was sold to Americans through a "political propaganda campaign" that was "all about manipulating sources of public opinion," according to a copy of the book previewed by the Washington Post. Most strikingly, McClellan concludes about the war: "What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary."

Should Hillary Clinton somehow still win the nomination, such accusations may have less impact since both she and McCain voted to give President Bush the authorization to go to war. But Obama just received new talking points to bolster his argument that it is judgment, not the experience McCain is selling, which is the more important quality for a president. Obama, whose early opposition to the war has helped him get within inches of the Democratic nomination, will certainly hammer this point home.

For McCain, the allegations made by McClellan are nothing but bad news. They may be one man's opinion, but coming from a former press secretary whose loyalty has never been publicly questioned before, they carry weight. McClellan will have more to say as he launches his book tour tomorrow but already he seems certain to reinforce the growing sentiment that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

The GOP candidate can (and probably will) dismiss McClellan's charges by pointing to the fact that, whatever came before, the war in Iraq continues and he's the one who can bring it to a successful conclusion. But that's not going to make the war – or those who supported it initially – any more popular. The Bush administration has become toxic for Republicans of all stripes, not just because of the war but primarily so. It is a rip-tide candidates at all levels are swimming against in 2008.

McCain was thought to be best positioned to avoid the undertow because he is not viewed as a typical "Bush Republican" and because he has clashed with the president in the past. But when it comes to the war, there's been little distance between the two men. Allegations that an unnecessary war was sold to America through a propaganda campaign certainly won't help McCain gain that distance he's been seeking from Bush in recent months.