As America nears the one-year anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, Democrats are running on the tagline, “bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive,” as Vice President Joe Biden put it this week.
Republicans are not happy with the development. After the Obama campaign put out a video suggesting Mitt Romney might not have made the same decision to send Navy SEALs into Pakistan, the RNC went ballistic, dispatching an irate John McCain to condemn their efforts to “politicize” bin Laden’s demise.
In truth, both sides have been sharpening their political message since the moment the death was announced. Let’s review the five stages of the evolving Republican response.
1) If You Can’t Say Anything Nice …
Almost no one in the Republican field of then-current or on-the-fence presidential candidates criticized Obama for taking out America’s most-wanted terrorist in 2011. But there were a few notable themes that presaged future partisan warfare. While Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Chris Christie and even Donald Trump congratulated the president on the historic achievement, many went out of their way to avoid mentioning his role in the mission. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin thanked the military and intelligence communities — and omitted other players. Rick Santorum begrudgingly acknowledged the president’s role while — simultaneously — calling him “not someone I would say is known for fighting great causes in defense of American freedom.” As the months went on, Perry sharpened this line further, answering a question on Obama’s importance to the mission with, “I’m almost positive it was Navy SEALs.”
2) Congratulations, President Bush!
In a parallel effort, veterans of the previous administration took to cable news en masse to spread their own talking point: The real hero of the Pakistan raid was President George W. Bush. Top Bush administration officials like Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld pushed the idea that the raid was only possible because of intelligence gathered through controversial measures like “enhanced interrogation” (or as human rights groups called it, torture).
“I think the tools that President Bush put into place — GITMO, rendition, enhanced interrogation, the vast effort to collect and collate this information — obviously served his successor quite well,” Rove said on Fox News.
Many cited an early Associated Press account of the mission that suggested information that helped track down bin Laden’s courier, the big breakthrough that enabled the mission, may have been extracted under duress from al Qaeda plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But subsequent reports, including an AP correction, indicated the information came up months after harsher techniques had been abandoned and was volunteered under ordinary interrogation.
3) Stray Attacks
As the initial euphoria of the mission faded, the more daring members of the partisan Republican crowd began testing some genuinely aggressive efforts to take Obama’s big achievement out of the game. Two that stood out: Sean Hannity casually mentioned on his show that the bin Laden raid “wouldn’t have happened if [Obama] had his way, and that can be proven, as well, on tape.” Santorum, still a long-shot candidate at the moment, told a gathering of Jewish Republicans that Obama had blown it by announcing bin Laden had been killed.
4) Even Ralph Nader Would Have Done It
With news of bin Laden’s death more than six months old, Romney began testing a new talking point: Sure, Obama ordered the bin Laden mission. But, hey, who wouldn’t have?
“We’re delighted that he gave the order to take out Osama bin Laden,” Romney said in December. “Any president would have done that, but this one did, and that’s a good thing. I’m not going to say everything he’s done is wrong.”
Presaging the fights to come, Democrats offered a strong response, including a video of Republicans praising Obama’s decision and specifically citing the difficult circumstances, murky intelligence and the risk of sparking an international incident if things went wrong.
5) … And Let Us Never Speak Of This Again
Which bring us to this week. The initial GOP response so far has mostly been to declare discussion of bin Laden out of bounds, period, when it comes to the election. The Romney campaign issued a statement saying Obama wants to “divide us, in order to try to distract voters’ attention from the failures of his administration.” McCain’s statement, circulated by the RNC, declared that bin Laden talk “politicizes” a sacred shared moment in our history and thus should be deemed unacceptable. Republican operatives also passed around an ABC article suggesting Obama is hypocritical to bring up bin Laden because he criticized Hillary Clinton for running a primary ad featuring the terrorist in 2008.
The Obama campaign thinks it has a unique opportunity to press the bin Laden issue because, unlike most Republican presidential candidates, Romney is actually on record suggesting he “wouldn’t move heaven and earth” to catch bin Laden in 2007 and — perhaps more damning — criticizing Obama in 2008 for saying he’d act unilaterally to strike bin Laden from Pakistan if necessary, the exact scenario that actually took place. In an awkward twist, McCain, slammed Romney for the 2007 quote while running against him, calling it an example of “naivete” at the time.
So should Republicans be worried? Brad Todd, a Republican consultant who worked with Romney in 2008 and is unaligned this time around, thinks the bin Laden fallout will do little to change what he said is a baked-in sense among voters that Republicans are stronger on foreign policy.
“The fundamental difference still is the public’s perception of the two parties’ DNA,” Todd said. “You can’t pull up an old quote about Obama on health care that’s going to hurt him on the left. I don’t care what it is. You can’t pull up an old quote by Romney on national security that’s going to hurt him on the right. It’s just not going to happen.”
Others suggest there may be room to make Obama pay politically if he overplays his hand. Rick Wilson, an unaligned Republican strategist, suggested that too much crowing by Obama could eventually be interpreted as a slight to the soldiers that spent a decade battling al Qaeda.
“This isn’t hard,” he said. Wilson said it’d be easy to envision an ad attacking Obama for taking too much credit, possibly featuring the names of fallen troops. “These are the kind men who gave up their lives for their country,” the narrator would say, before cutting to a shot of Obama. “And this is the kind of politician who claims credit for all they’ve done.”
But it’s also possible that the best bet might be to just accept that Obama has the advantage on the issue and move on. After all, having won plenty of elections with a tough national security message, Republicans should probably know better than anyone how much of a stretch it is to claim that running on bin Laden is beyond the pale.
“I assume we’re angered by use of military successes for political campaigns because none of us were alive in 2008 or 2004,” Republican consultant and former Bush speechwriter Josh Trevino wyrly tweeted last week.