In politics, as in life, when one is in a hole, he or she should stop digging. This advice was not heeded by John McCain's campaign today. Both the Senator and his aides sought to brush away his factually inaccurate statement that American troops in Iraq were down to pre-surge levels. In the process, they made the hole even bigger.
Reminded that troops in Iraq currently number 155,000, well above the pre-surge level of 130,000, McCain refused to acknowledge on Friday that he had misspoke.
"I said we had drawn down," the Senator declared during a press conference (watch video). "I said we have drawn down and we have drawn down three of the five brigades. We have drawn down three of the five brigades. We have drawn down the marines. The rest will be home the end of July. That's just facts, the facts as I stated them."
But that isn't what he stated. On Thursday, in fact, he made a very specific measurement as to the extent of troop reductions.
"I can tell you that it [the mission in Iraq] is succeeding," said McCain. "I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels."
And that was just the beginning. McCain's gaffe had already been exacerbated during a conference call earlier in the day, when aides to the Arizona Republican insisted that he had not misspoke, even while McCain surrogate Sen. Jon Kyl acknowledged on the same call that he had: "What he said was not entirely accurate. OK. So what?"
The campaign aides also ridiculed reporters for even caring about the topic. "It is the essence of semantics," foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann said. "We are having this call about a verb tense and if you choose to write a story about Sen. McCain's use of a verb tense you need to hold Senator Obama to that exact same standard."
All of which, of course, simply piqued the interest of reporters. Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post pointed out that, contrary to the McCain campaign's tone, word choice does, in fact, matter. "If Bush had said 'the mission will be accomplished' as opposed to 'mission accomplished' -- those are two completely different things with completely different meanings."
An increasingly irritated Scheunemann responded: "If you're going to start fact-checking verb tenses, we're going to make sure we start monitoring verb tenses a lot more closely than we have in this campaign."
Later in the call, a reporter questioned whether McCain's verbal error was a sign that the Senator's age was affecting his memory and understanding.
"In every campaign, when you want to change the subject you try to pick a little thing that you can pick on and try to change the subject," replied Senator Jon Kyl, a McCain supporter. "I don't think this has anything to do with age."
The problem, however, was that this was not McCain's only gaffe. During the same Thursday conference when he misstated troop levels, he also argued that conditions were "quiet" in Mosul. That same day, three suicide bombers killed 30 in the city.
The Obama campaign quickly jumped on both the comments, organizing a call with reporters in which surrogates questioned McCain's judgment.
"It is very disturbing to have John McCain continue to raise questions about what he knows and what he bases his judgments on," Sen. John Kerry said. "If you don't know the number of troops, it is difficult to make a judgment as to whether they are overextended. ... It raises serious questions about his comprehension of this challenge."
All of which, apparently, was a step too far for the McCain folks. Hoping to shift attention away from his boss, Scheunemann cried 'journalistic double standard.'
"If we are going to talk about verb tenses in this level of detail, rather than the fact that Senator Obama doesn't care about what is going on in Iraq to even meet General Petraeus or to take time to visit the country in the last 873 days, let's talk about some of the other things that Senator Obama has misstated, like campaigning in 57 states, like the need for Arabic translators in Afghanistan, or for opium poppy agronomists in Iraq, or a non-existent uncle that helped the Red Army liberate Auschwitz."
A reporter later reminded him that McCain had structured his campaign on his judgment on Iraq. Obama had not, in the same regard, built his candidacy around his great uncle or the map of the United States.
"Obama," wrote Ben Smith, "perhaps, meant that the U.S. will, at some future date, add seven states."