The Obama campaign isn’t shy about using the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as a political cudgel. But the White House’s record may get a boost from the GOP’s choice of nominee, whose previous presidential campaign included a spat with fellow Republicans over the relative unimportance of catching the Al Qaeda leader.
In the campaign’s first major election speech on foreign policy, Vice President Joe Biden made extremely prominent use of an April 2007 Romney quote on bin Laden, in which he told the Associated Press “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”
“I was a little more direct,” Biden said in his speech. “We will follow the SOB to the gates of hell.”
Romney’s “heaven and earth” line proved a gaffe at the time as well. Sen. John McCain, who tried to portray Romney throughout the race as weak on national security, told blogger Jennifer Rubin that “it takes a degree of naiveté to think [bin Laden is] not an element in the struggle against radical Islam.”
Byron York, columnist for the National Review, held nothing back, writing at the time, “we have already spent billions and gone to a lot of effort to try to get bin Laden … it would be worth still more money and still more effort to kill the man behind 9/11.”
“I can’t imagine any serious Republican candidate for president would say otherwise,” York wrote. “Perhaps Romney should watch the tape of the planes hitting the towers again.”
Romney walked back his remarks in a Republican debate, saying “We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another.”
Now it’s coming back to haunt him, especially as Romney has tried to minimize the Navy SEAL raid by suggesting “any president” would have done the same thing.
President Bush sounded a similar line as his administration’s inability to find bin Laden became fodder for Democratic attacks (Kerry often said he “took his eye off the ball” by turning his attention to Iraq instead). Back in 2002, President George W. Bush famously said Bin Laden was no longer a top priority, “just a person who’s been marginalized.” So, to some degree, Romney was toeing the party line.
In an ironic — and unfortunate — twist for Romney, Obama had his own bin Laden battle in the 2008 primaries, in which Hillary Clinton, McCain, and Romney himself all accused Obama of being too zealous in his devotion to catching the al Qaeda leader, specifically chiding him for his pledge to act even if the terrorist were holed up in Pakistan.
“There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans,” Obama said in August 2007. “They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will.”
Add it up and Biden and Obama have an opportunity to put Romney on the defensive on national security that they’re apparently all too happy to take.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.