Mitt Romney is taking a break from not politicizing the killing of Osama bin Laden to engage in a flashback: Politicizing the entire “war on terror.” How’s he spending the first anniversary of OBL’s killing? He’s “in New York City Tuesday to meet with firefighters and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.” (He snuck in a breakfast with Mike Bloomberg, too.) If the significance is lost on you, tap Jon Chait on the shoulder and ask him about it.
He is attempting, like Bush, to move the issue out of the realm of a policy dispute, where voters compare the positions and actions of the two parties, and into the realm of elemental cultural politics. There, fighting terrorism is more about patriotism and cultural identification with the values of working-class men.
You saw another aspect of this on MSNBC today, when Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor deflected multiple questions from Chuck Todd about his insistence that “just about every president, given the stakes, given the significance, would have made that call” to kill bin Laden. When Todd asked Senor to explain Romney’s clean-up comment – that “even Jimmy Carter” would have sent in the SEALs – Senor tried to pilot the discussion back to elemental partisanship.
I think that what Gov. Romney was saying was that even President Carter, who was known not to have been very decisive on issues of war and piece, and to have been – you know, has failed in some respects on issues of war and peace, and has had a very uneven record both when he was in office and since he’s been in office, he made the point that just about every president would have made this call. It’s not a political issue. It’s not a left-right thing. Even presidents who were way on the left would have made this decision.
The Obama campaign argument is specific: This was what he said he’d do, he did it. The Romney argument is generic, and Romney furthers it by demanding a broader argument. Senor calls the bin Laden killing a “strategic objective.” In September 2009, for example, Senor appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show to explain why actually killing OBL would endanger public support for the War on Terror.
Bill, you know, so much of what this administration talks about as it relates to Afghanistan is getting bin Laden. It’s really important. The question is with what happens tomorrow if we do get bin Laden? I think American public support for our presence in Afghanistan will crater. They’ll say we got bin Laden. It’s over. The reality is our interest right now in Afghanistan transcends and goes beyond getting bin Laden.
For Senor, and for Romney, the killing of bin Laden was one goal in a broader war. Obama, like John Kerry before him, suggested that America could achieve its goals in the war through police actions. Republicans, stuck defending the hearts-and-minds-altering properties of the Iraq War, called this naive. Romney called it naive, too. But – this is the weirdest aspect of the whole story – his 2007 quotes criticizing Obama on his bin Laden plans were mostly about the wisdom of threatening bin Laden out loud. Here’s a pretty representative 2007 exchange between Romney and then-Fox News host John Gibson.
GIBSON: If you found out where Osama was, would you bomb that cave without telling Musharraf?
ROMNEY: You can be sure we would take necessary action to get Osama bin Laden, but I would not say something which would tend to incite people in Pakistan against the leadership of that country. You can anticipate that we have a close relationship with General Musharraf and that that relationship would continue. But we don’t talk about taking unilateral action, bombing people who are our allies and our friends.
Obama was talking out loud, in part, because Democrats (especially black Democrats with Arabic names) had to overcome the impression that they’d be soft on terror. Romney didn’t have to worry about that. Now, he has to worry. And so the discussion moves over to whether Obama – he of the “apology tours” – is overhyping his tactical wins because he’s insufficiently committed to a Global War on Terror.