Commentary: GOP candidates should learn bullying doesn't equal leadership

The Kansas City StarMarch 5, 2012 

Playground antics come to mind when watching the remaining GOP candidates take aim at the sitting president.

True, their jabs at each other are far more memorable and injurious. As when Ron Paul calls Rick Santorum "a fake." It's gotten so bad that Karl Rove has bewailed the Republican candidates' "intramural warfare."

However, when the candidates do set aside taunting each other and focus on their real opponent, Barack Obama, the effect is equally juvenile. It’s all recess, with the wannabe Republican nominees crowing and posturing in ways they possibly learned when they were in short pants.

“I’m tougher than he is,” they want you to know. And no topic sets them off quite like foreign policy, as evidenced by the comments during the pre-Super Tuesday debate in Mesa, Ariz.

Newt Gingrich declared Obama “the most dangerous president, on national security grounds, in American history.”

Mitt Romney chimed in to point out “the feckless leadership of our president.”

And Rick Santorum spoke to “the timidness of this president.” He claimed that Obama has failed to stand up to Iran and predicted a “cataclysmic situation” if Obama is not replaced in the White House.

The president as a foreign policy wimp?

Osama bin Laden’s next of kin would beg to differ. So would former president George W. Bush, who knows Obama has actually carried on with many of his foreign policy strategies. And it’s hard to imagine how a U.S. president could have improved upon Obama’s subtle and skillful intervention in the Libyan civil war that rid the world of Moammar Gadhafi.

The truth is, this GOP field has nothing. It’s a clown car wobbling down the road. For a while, it seemed, a new front-runner popped out every month or so to the surprise and delight of the audience. Santorum is the last clown, and he and Romney are busy running around the vehicle, trading turns in the shotgun seat.

But the wheels appear in danger of coming off completely. Some within GOP ranks keep pressing Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to enter the race. Others are daffy enough to wish for Sarah Palin’s late entry into the field.

That’s desperation.

Desperation also explains the playground braggadocio. Here’s the thing about bullies: They tend to be the kids with the lowest self-esteem. They never turn out to be the powerhouses they pretend to be.

During the Arizona debate, only Ron Paul sounded like he had the maturity and restraint to command anything greater than a Scout troop, much less have the power to order a nuclear strike.

Paul conceded that his usual arguments against rushing to use military force have fallen on deaf ears. He’s right. When it comes to dealing with conflict abroad, moral reasoning and constitutional arguments don’t seem to cut much ice with Republican voters. (Nor do simple appeals to prudence.) So Paul made a fiscal argument, pointing out the crippling costs of war to the budget.

He also noted that he is the only one of the four candidates with any military experience. That’s telling.

Obama had no military experience before becoming president, but now he knows the responsibility of being commander in chief. He has walked silently among the coffins of U.S. service members as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base.

The day after the Arizona debate, Obama sent a letter of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the NATO troops that burned copies of the Qur’an at the largest U.S. air base in Afghanistan.

To the GOP candidates, apologies are signs of weakness.

Gingrich was the first to criticize the president. Never mind that thousands have taken to the streets to protest news of the desecrations, that two U.S. troops have been killed in retaliation and that mullahs are using the incident to drum up more calls against U.S. “infidels.”

This is a real-world problem the president must solve. It’s not the sort of thing that can be dismissed with the bombast we see on display in the GOP debates.

It’s one thing to rile up a debate audience with rhetorical jabs. It’s quite another to order up drone attacks that you know might kill innocent civilians in Pakistan — and that the resulting blowback may arrive on these shores as more U.S. troops in coffins.

Bluffing that you are the bigger bully is not the place from which a true commander in chief would ever start.

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