So the fallback is to portray Obama as a braggart who is “spiking the football.” That’s pretty weak tea, as evidenced by this statement from Mitt Romney’s camp: “It’s now sad to see the Obama campaign seek to use an event that unified our country to once again divide us.”
The Romney people would be well advised to brush up on the history of their own party. Consider, for instance, the election of 1900. William McKinley’s bid for a second term featured an end-zone dance about the Spanish-American War. McKinley’s top surrogate was his running mate, war hero Theodore Roosevelt, who told voters: “We drew the sword and waged the most righteous and brilliantly successful foreign war that this generation has seen.”
But why go back 112 years? I don’t recall any of Obama’s critics complaining in May 2003, when George W. Bush donned a flight suit and strutted around the deck of an aircraft carrier with a banner emblazoned “Mission Accomplished.”
Everyone knew that ceremony was being choreographed for Bush’s reelection bid. The White House hired an ex-ABC News producer to advise on production values. The carrier was directed to shift positions several times to ensure that an expanse of water, rather than the nearby California coastline, would serve as the backdrop when Bush’s plane landed. And his remarks, noting the end of “major combat operations in Iraq,” were delayed until the cameras could frame him against the golden sunset, at what’s known in Hollywood as “the magic hour.”
Hey, politics ain’t beanbag. Iraq looked like a triumph (that day, anyway), so naturally Bush wanted to reap the credit.
Security policy and domestic politics are inextricably linked — and nobody knew that better than Bush operative Karl Rove. Which is why, a mere four months after the 9/11 cataclysm, Rove served notice that the Republicans would seek to leverage 9/11 to their advantage in the 2002 midterm elections. Bush had brandished a bullhorn amid the rubble of lower Manhattan, and he had dispatched troops to fight the terrorists; it was time to politicize it all. Rove told a January 2002 meeting of the Republican National Committee: “Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and our families safe.”
Two years later, Rove virtually wrapped Bush in the 9/11 flag. Lest we forget, the GOP convention was staged in New York City for the first time, and the speeches sought to frame the contest as a choice between the avenger of ground zero and the irresolute John Kerry. Republicans who are knocking Obama for boasting about Osama today never uttered a peep when Bush bragged about bagging terrorists in ’04.
Cut and run
Republicans were mute again in 2006, when Rove politicized the news that al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had died in an airstrike. Mindful of the ’06 midterm elections, Rove told an audience that Zarqawi would still be alive if Democrats had been in charge: “When it gets tough and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party’s old pattern of cutting and running.”
This is how the game has long been played, as Republicans well know. They’re just bugged that the hit on bin Laden has made their cut-and-run rhetoric obsolete. And every day they grouse about “politicization,” Obama gets a fresh chance to frame his decision to order the raid on bin Laden’s compound as a metaphor for decisive leadership.
Indeed, former Bush speechwriter David Frum acknowledges that Obama faced a “devilish” decision. In his words, “Obama can claim credit for its success not because he planned the raid, but because he would have had to wear the blame if the raid had failed.”
There it is. If the raid had failed, Republicans would be gleefully spiking the football, linking Obama to Jimmy Carter’s failed hostage rescue of 1980. They’re just sore that they can’t be the ones politicizing it. But as they say in politics, to the victor go the spoils.
Dick Polman’s column will appear in the opinion pages on alternate Fridays as well as in Currents on alternate Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dickpolman1.