Dick Cheney = low. General David Petraeus = high. Wall Street bailout = low. Main Street rescue package = high. Political buzz words often have numbers attached to them. Not dollars and cents numbers, but approval/disapproval numbers. Because Dick Cheney's popularity rating is in the low double-digits, you'll see more Democrats than Republicans mentioning the Veep by name. He's a political third rail; invoke his name in a sentence, and the electorate's acceptance of whatever you're taking about (even giving free kittens to kids with cancer) will plummet. GOP pollster Frank Luntz wrote a whole book, Words That Work: It's Not What Your Say, It's What People Hear, about this strategy of using popular language to shape public opinion.
So when Alaska governor Sarah Palin drops the name of Gen. David Petraeus into every answer she gives on Iraq or the war on terror, it's not by accident. A Gallup poll conducted in September 2007, when Gen. Petraeus delivered his assessment on Iraq to Congress, found that Americans had a 61% approval rating of the general--far above the low 30's registered by President Bush at the same time.
But what I find troubling is the worshipful tones she and John McCain use to describe Gen. Petraeus. During the vice presidential debate she said, "I am thankful that that is part of the plan implemented under a great American hero, Gen. Petraeus." During Sen. McCain's convention acceptance speech he said, "[t]hanks to the leadership of a brilliant general, David Petraeus, and the brave men and women he has the honor to command." Midway through the first presidential debate, McCain said almost the same thing, calling Petraeus a "great general." But why stop there. During a July interview with Katie Couric McCain described the then commander in Iraq as "one of the great generals in history." Would Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan, or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (who McCain invoked with significant errors in historical fact during his opening statement at the first debate) care to object?
I am naturally wary of politicians who tie their political fortunes to the poll numbers of buzz words. But I am afraid of those leaders who attempt to chip away at the essential wall between civilian government and military war-fighting for political gain. Would a McCain-Palin administration find room for Gen. Petraeus in their cabinet? Probably. But by telegraphing those intentions so blatantly, McCain is blurring the boundary between the military's apolitical allegiance to the Constitution and the orders of the President and the gamesmanship of political campaigns. It's time for war hero McCain to stop his hero-worship of Gen. Petraeus for the benefit of the TV cameras.