The ad features Bill Clinton celebrating Obama’s decision to send in the SEALs and kill Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. “Suppose the Navy Seals had gone in there and it hadn't been bin Laden?” says Bill. “Suppose they'd been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him, but … he took the harder and the more honourable path and the one that produced, in my opinion, the best result.” A question then flashes up on the screen that asks, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” The ad reminds viewers that Romney once opined that, “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” The implication is obvious: Obama killed bin Laden and is a hero; Romney didn’t think it was worth chasing the terrorist and is a girly-man unworthy of the presidency.
Obama deserves all the praise and glory for killing bin Laden; my only regret about the episode is that I didn’t get a chance to pull the trigger myself. And the Pres is wise to use the incident in his election campaign. In the debates, he should answer every point that Romney makes about the sluggish economy with, “Yeah, well I shot bin Laden!”
But Obama made a big mistake when he took an unreservedly good decision and tried to spin it into an attack on Romney. For starters, no one seriously thinks that Mitt Romney wouldn’t have greenlit the raid on bin Laden’s compound – as Mitt said, “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” Nor did the Republican think that capturing the terrorist wasn’t an important job. Obama’s ad quotes Romney rather selectively. In the original interview, he was asked, “Why haven't we caught bin Laden in your opinion?” Mitt replied, “I think, I wouldn't want to over-concentrate on bin Laden. He's one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He's by no means the only leader. It's a very diverse group – Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person… Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is – it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin laden or a few of his associates.” In other words, whilst the death of bin Laden would be a tactical victory, it is only one small part of the wider strategy to defeat Islamic terrorism. Mitt's nuanced view was confirmed by the fact that the War on Terror didn’t end the day bin Laden died.
Of course, all’s fair in love and politics and it’s hard to fault Obama for using Romney’s words against him. Bush did exactly the same in 2004, repeatedly listing every defense system that Senator John Kerry ever voted against. But by pivoting from “I’ve got balls” to “Romney’s a eunuch” within one 90 second ad, Obama has foolishly moved the debate away from how great at foreign policy he is to just how mean he can be. Hence, Monday’s headlines were John McCain’s remark that “heroes don’t brag,” while most news outlets devoted time to discussing Obama’s ethics. The point surfaced in a heated interview between CNN’s Piers Morgan and the conservative author Jonah Goldberg (dressed not unlike Ron Burgundy). Morgan demanded to know what was wrong with trumpeting Obama’s War on Terror triumph (which, he rightly pointed out, the GOP also did in 2004) and upbraiding Romney for saying something foolish about it. Goldberg’s reply: “It was stupid of the White House to do this because instead of talking about how great Barack Obama was for killing Osama bin Laden, we’re arguing about whether it was appropriate for him to run this political ad.” Precisely. Obama’s decision to make the death of bin Laden not about him but about Romney means that the media will spend the anniversary talking not about bin Laden but about Obama’s excessive partisanship. That’s how you convert a win into a lose.
Furthermore, this ugly ad compels the press to debate just how much Obama understands the cultural politics of the presidency. In the hours after bin Laden’s death, the Pres did the right thing by praising the work of the troops and promising not to “spike the ball” by over-celebrating the incident. But now he’s turned that ball into one giant spike, not only by ramming the bin Laden adventure down the voters’ throats but also by claiming sole responsibility for it. Michael Mukasey points out that it’s traditional for Presidents to ascribe victory to the troops and failure to themselves– recognising that while the Commander-in-Chief is responsible for decision making, it is the man in the field who takes the risks and so deserves the credit.
By contrast, this ad leaves the emotional impression that Obama personally swung into bin Laden’s compound on a rope and took the terrorist down with his own sweet moves. It’s tacky and unpresidential. Consider again Bill Clinton’s words, “Suppose [the SEALs had] been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for [the President].” Actually, it would have been rather more horrible for the American soldiers. Presumably, what Clinton means here is that Obama’s re-election would have been imperiled if he’d made the wrong call. Is that all that motivates this President, the hunger for four more years? If so, his need is so great that it’s causing him to make some bizarre, unforced errors.