Nothing aggravates Republicans like seeing nasty, effective tactics upon which they have so long relied being turned against one of their candidates. So when Barack Obama's re-election campaign aired an ad celebrating the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death — and suggesting that Mitt Romney wouldn't have achieved that objective — the right exploded with outraged protests.
Evidently, the feelings of longtime hatchet men like Bush-era party chair Ed Gillespie, ex-Bush flack Ari Fleischer and the editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal, to name a few, were really, really hurt — because the Obama campaign exploited a moment of national unity for partisan advantage.
"This is one of the reasons President Obama has become one of the most divisive presidents in American history," said Gillespie, now a Romney adviser.
To anyone with a functioning memory, however, this whining is implausible. So are the dire predictions that the president will somehow offend voters by claiming credit for whacking bin Laden (or by smacking Romney). During the Bush presidency, Republicans used precisely the same approach and worse, over and over, without fretting whether their words and ads were "divisive."
It began weeks after the 9/11 attacks, amid sincere pledges of patriotic cooperation from congressional Democrats, when Karl Rove told the Republican National Committee that their party would "go to the country on this issue" to win the midterm elections in 2002. They won a historic victory by sliming wounded Vietnam hero Max Cleland and former Air Force intelligence officer Tom Daschle as stooges of al-Qaida.
Bush's 2004 re-election campaign amplified the same themes, with advertising and pageantry at the Republican convention in New York City grossly exploiting 9/11, a series of conveniently timed terror "alerts" leading up to Election Day and repeated warnings by Vice President Dick Cheney that a Democratic victory would signal weakness to America's enemies. And it persisted into the 2006 midterm, with Rove falsely portraying Democrats as limp-wristed "liberals" trying to "understand" Osama bin Laden.
Until that election, the rough Rovian style succeeded brilliantly — despite the fact that Bush and Cheney had actually allowed bin Laden and Mullah Omar to escape at Tora Bora. Obama's cool order to kill bin Laden, in a moment of considerable risk to his presidency, finally debunked the decade of smears against Democrats as unpatriotic, wimpish and unreliable.
By contrast, the Obama ad's brief rebuke of Romney is at least factual and accurate: Not only did he say what the ad quotes, but he also said that he wouldn't go into Pakistan to get bin Laden, which is what the mission required. Had the president followed Romney's policy recommendation, bin Laden would almost certainly still be at large.
"Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," scoffed Romney in response. But he shouldn't be so quick to denigrate the former Democratic president, who entered the Navy during World War II and then served as a submarine officer until his honorable discharge in 1953. Somebody may compare Carter's service with Romney's own military record, which doesn't exist — and remind voters that he avoided the Vietnam draft with a pampered stint as a Mormon missionary, in France.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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