Memo to Democrats: McCain's War Service Is Off Limits

Top Democratic strategists, and Obama supporters, warn their own to stay away from McCain's war record.

A photograph of Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III taken during an interview with U.S.News & World Report after his release from captivity in Vietnam.

Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III after his release from captivity in Vietnam.

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Memo to surrogates and supporters of presumed Democratic nominee Barack Obama, including and especially retired Gen. Wesley Clark: Going after John McCain's military record in any way, shape, or form is a loser.

And that, my friends (as McCain might say), comes straight from top Democratic strategists. They say that Clark's assertion that the expected Republican nominee's military experience doesn't translate into executive capabilities—whether one agrees or not—was political folly.

"I was flabbergasted by General Clark's comments," says William Galston, who advised President Bill Clinton on domestic policy during his first term. "They seem to me to represent about the least plausible line of attack on Senator McCain that I could imagine."

Particularly wrong-headed? Vietnam vet Clark's assessment that "riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down" doesn't qualify Vietnam vet McCain for the presidency. McCain was held as a prisoner of war for 5½ years after that fighter plane was shot down in Vietnam. (Clark left Vietnam on a stretcher after being shot four times in a battle with the Viet Cong while he was a company commander.)

"That comment crossed the line," says Tad Devine, who was chief political consultant to Al Gore during his 2000 White House run. Devine says he's "not criticizing Wes Clark for standing up and saying what he believes—but it's a distraction."

"I don't think Obama wants a fight with McCain about military experience when Senator Obama doesn't have military experience," he said.

Some liberal bloggers and columnists have encouraged Clark with a hearty "atta boy" chorus. But strategists say that at best, Clark's comments have been a distraction from what they believe are the Democrats' clear winning issues: the economy and the Iraq war.

Why, asks Devine, would Democrats "open up a third or fourth front [of attack] when those first two look so promising?"

Strategist Tony Podesta echoed some of Clark's sentiments, saying that "everybody honors [McCain's] service and his POW status, but that doesn't qualify you for president." But to attack McCain's service, Podesta says, is a "delicate" undertaking.

It's a much better strategy, he says, to take on McCain's changing positions on immigration and tax cuts for the rich, and what Democrats' see as his lack of mastery of economic issues.

"This election will not be about executive experience," Podesta says. "Neither candidate has any."

The McCain campaign has made the most of the opportunity Clark handed them, holding conference calls to denounce the former general's comments and to call on the Democratic nominee to "tell his surrogates to stop criticizing John McCain's record of service." (A participant in one of the conference calls was McCain supporter and fellow POW Col. Bud Day, a key player in the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam War service. At the time, McCain repudiated the Swift boat group's attacks.)

For his part, Obama has called Clark's comments "inartful," but he has not capitulated to calls for him to contact the general and "cut him loose," as McCain urged yesterday.

Nor should he, says Podesta, who characterized the commotion over whether Obama—or McCain—can control what supporters say as a tactic to give a story more shelf life.

Will this issue linger much longer? "I don't think so," says Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The American people this year have a strong sense of what the issues are and what they want to talk about."

It hasn't been damaging to Obama, says Devine, but it has been a distraction. Particularly during a week the candidate kicked off with a speech designed to answer questions some voters have expressed about his patriotism, and delivered, symbolically, in Independence, Mo.

The Clark flap threatened to undermine some of that effort, at least in the short run. "Leadership is in part a matter of character, and [McCain's] conduct as a prisoner of war obviously says nothing about his executive ability," Galston says. "But it says a lot about his character."