President Barack Obama is determined not to get swift-boated. He's not going to let Republicans turn one of the crowning achievements of his first term into a negative.
The Obama team apparently learned from the experience of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry in 2004, when White House operative Karl Rove successfully mounted a campaign to use one of Kerry’s primary assets, his valorous military record, as a club to beat him with. Republicans found a few veterans who never had liked Kerry to start with, and enlisted them to question whether he deserved the medals he received while serving on a swift boat patrolling the rivers of Vietnam.
One of the reasons Democrats had nominated Kerry was because his military service was supposed to make him politically bulletproof and provide a contrast to George W. Bush’s service patrolling the skies over Texas. But, in their nasty but inspired swift-boat campaign, the Republicans managed to make Kerry look like a vainglorious phony.
And it all worked brilliantly. So, why not try it again this election?
As the first-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden approached, Republicans began accusing the president of exploiting the event for political purposes. It was unseemly, they said, the political equivalent of dancing in the end zone, something beneath the dignity of the office.
Well, the Obama team was not going to sit still for that. The administration’s success in finally finding and killing the most wanted terrorist in the world was not going to be turned on its head and used against them.
First, the Obama campaign produced a TV ad that praised the president’s decision to order the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad. More to the point, it ended by asking which path presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would have taken under the same circumstances.
Later, Obama operatives openly questioned whether Romney would have ordered the raid, and it put Romney on the defensive.
Asked by reporters if he, too, would have given the order to go after Bin Laden, Romney said: “Of course, of course. Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.”
He implies, first, that the decision to order the raid was a slam dunk, and, second, that even a weakling like Carter would have given the go-ahead. The first contention is false; the second, a cheap shot.
Multiple accounts of what occurred during the discussion of whether to mount the raid show beyond question that the decision was both agonizing and Obama’s alone. Several key advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended a full-scale bombing attack on the compound instead of risking the lives of Navy Seals in a ground attack.
But that would have destroyed everything in the compound, including potentially valuable documents. It also would have made identification of bodies impossible.
The political risks were enormous, but Obama ordered the raid anyway. Carter must have gone through much the same difficult process in 1980 when considering a raid to rescue the hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran.
He made the same choice but with disastrous results. After the mission had been aborted because of a blinding sandstorm and other setbacks, one of the mission’s helicopters crashed into a transport plane, and eight servicemen were killed.
Still, Romney has no call to question Carter’s guts on that occasion.
The Obama campaign might, at some points, have crossed the line in politicizing the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death. But it has yet to match Bush’s landing, in full flight-suit mode, on an aircraft carrier, and gloating under a huge banner declaring, “Mission Accomplished” – eight years before U.S. troops left Iraq.
The larger point may be that Obama’s overall foreign policy record has been a plus for him, not only in killing Bin Laden, but also in bringing the troops home from Iraq, helping topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and winding down the war in Afghanistan. Republicans aren’t used to Democrats being viewed more favorably on foreign policy.
So, bring out the swift boats. But don’t be surprised if Obama refuses to get on board.