I’m afraid Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are giving the game away to John McCain on the most important matter facing the country, the Iraq war.

I hate to sound like one of those middle-aged jock-loving MSNBC pundits, but as I sit here on the sidelines I want to scream, “Quit playing defense.” What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they hit McCain on the head with the war instead of dancing around the subject?

It’s because the Democratic candidates are consumed by their desire to establish themselves as tough on that vague concept of “national security.” That’s the reason for their pointless debate over who would be most adept at answering the White House emergency phone at 3 a.m.

The phone call issue was immortalized in the Clinton commercial that has been given too much credit for the senator’s victories in the Ohio and Texas primaries. It showed a worried-looking mom peeping in at her sleeping kids. The message was that Mom could rest easy if Clinton was there to pick up the White House phone and issue orders that would protect our security.

Or, as Clinton put it in her Ohio victory speech, “Protecting America is the first and most urgent duty of the president. When there’s a crisis and that phone rings at 3 a.m. in the White House, there’s no time for speeches or on-the-job training. You have to be ready to make a decision.”

As is the case with most commercials, this one wasn’t quite true to life. Worried parents peep into their children’s rooms to check whether they’re breathing or — if the kids are teenagers — whether they’re home. As for the time, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred mid-morning, not at 3 a.m.

Those are quibbles. The biggest mistake of the commercial was that it was a defensive move to establish Clinton as tough enough to be commander in chief — or all-night national security desk officer, as she apparently views the job. Obama, by implication, was too weak to make a decision at 3 a.m. or even wake up to answer the phone. Obama’s method of reply was a copycat commercial.

Such a debate is perfect for McCain. The very mushiness of the word security helps him. It’s broad, scary and simple. It doesn’t mean anything. Most important, it is not the name of that national sinkhole, Iraq. If the word Iraq becomes a staple of the political debate, as it was in 2006 and 2007, McCain could be in trouble.

McCain, of course, talks about Iraq all the time. He believes in the war. And his “No Surrender” advocacy helped bring the Republican base to his side when his campaign seemed to be failing in 2007.

In his speech celebrating his Texas primary victory, McCain said, “I will defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime as I also criticized the failed tactics that were employed too long.” He pledged “to establish the conditions that will allow us to leave that country with our country’s interests secure and our honor intact. … The next president must explain how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide destabilizing the entire Middle East and ending our security there.”

In other words, be prepared for a stay of many years. As McCain said earlier this year, “Maybe 100 [years]. As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it’s fine with me, and I hope it would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaida is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day.”

The Democratic candidates should be attacking McCain on this point every day. Both Clinton and Obama favor withdrawal, although her plan seems more stretched out than his. Yet, despite the endless nature of the war, neither Clinton nor Obama has been saying much about it lately. Clinton gave the war just passing mention in her Ohio victory speech: “We’re ready to end the war in Iraq and win the war in Afghanistan. And we’re past ready to serve our veterans with the same devotion that they served us.”

Perhaps they’re frightened by the polls. A Pew Research Center poll in February showed 12 percent of those surveyed thought the military effort in Iraq was going “very well,” while 36 percent said “fairly well.” But I think the polls are a function of news coverage of Iraq, which is dwindling. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that between Feb. 25 and March 2 just 3 percent of the available time and space for news was devoted to Iraq.

Part of this is journalists’ short attention span. Part is a shrinking of the Iraq press corps due to media industry cutbacks, but much of the blame rests with the Democratic agenda, in which Iraq is sinking toward the bottom.

The Democratic candidates could make powerful and fresh attacks on the war. A new book by Joseph Stiglitz, who is a Nobel prize-winning economist, and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes puts the cost of the war at $3 trillion. In fact that’s the title of the book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.”

Think of what that money could have bought. Better public schools to train young people to work in difficult jobs of the new economy, decent health insurance, public works projects to repair a decaying infrastructure.

Go for it, Clinton and Obama. Quit these piddling little attacks on each other. Play offense. Make McCain justify a perpetual stay in Iraq — and the huge expenditure of lives and money.

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