WASHINGTON - The humor was typical Obama: droll, deadpan, dismissive -- and more on target than anyone but the president could have known. Looking back on his comedy riff now, it's clear that it marks the start of a major pivot point in our politics.
After nearly 50 years, the crippling "weak-on-defense" accusation -- a staple of Republican attacks going back to Richard Nixon -- may finally have reached the end of its useful life.
Republicans were going to try to keep it alive in other ways: Guantanamo, renditions, or the theory that the president was somehow coddling Muslim terrorists.
That's all going to be much harder now, especially since not a single one of the GOP's likely 2012 contenders has significant military experience, and Sen. John McCain isn't running.
(For the record, Herman Cain was a bureaucrat in the Department of the Navy; Dr. Ron Paul was a flight surgeon in the Air Force. As for the leading contenders -- Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, you name it -- nothing.)
By calmly and meticulously overseeing the successful targeting of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama just proved himself -- vividly, in almost Biblical terms -- to be an effective commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.
Good night, Vietnam. Goodbye, George McGovern's anti-war campaign of 1972. Goodbye, Jimmy Carter's pathetically inept hostage-rescue mission in 1980. Goodbye, Bill Clinton and the draft.
Or so Democrats have at least some reason to hope.
"This is a definitional moment for voters," said Democratic polltaker and strategist Geoffrey Garin. "There's no question that the Republicans will make a 'national security' run at the president in 2012," he said. "But the most tangible thing for voters will be that Obama got the central job done. A lot of people were involved in baking the cake, going back years, but the cake turned out well and voters will notice."
Republicans were muted, eager to praise everyone. But even former Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged the facts, offering to "congratulate President Obama and members of his security team."
The sequence of events on this game-changing weekend began innocuously enough.
The president was poking fun at Donald Trump, his cartoonish nemesis-of-the-month. The Donald had impressive "credentials and breadth of experience," he told a banquet hall full of reporters and editors at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night.
"For example," he went on with mock seriousness, "just recently, in an episode of 'Celebrity Apprentice,' at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks.
"And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you did not blame Lil' John or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled sir, well handled."
Trump looked like he had sucked on a lemon as the crowd erupted in derisive laughter.
At that very moment, it turns out -- indeed for much of the past several weeks -- the president had his mind on the specifics of the high-stakes plan to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. And the very night of the comedy dinner at the Hilton Hotel, the president knew that the raid on the bin Laden compound was likely to be days or even hours away.
Does anyone remember Donald Trump? Could anyone seem more trivial now than he?
The president's methodology and success contrasts sharply with what happened a generation ago when another sitting Democratic president -- one accused of being "weak on defense" -- oversaw a daring secret mission in a hostile region of the Middle East.
On April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered an attempt to rescue 52 Americans who had been taken hostage by revolutionary forces in Iran -- the same forces that still control the country. But one of the eight helicopters involved crashed into a fuel transport. The mission was aborted and eight American servicemen were killed. It was a global humiliation, and the mission's obvious ineptitude cemented the view of Carter as ineffectual.
He lost the election to Ronald Reagan.
But the Democrats' political problem with defense issues goes back much further, to the Vietnam Era and the domestic unrest of the '60s. Voters and even the U.S. military grew skeptical of the war, but the accusation that Democrats wanted to "cut and run" in Vietnam became a deadly political weapon in the hands of GOP operatives.
One of the youngest of them at the time was a College Republican leader named Karl Rove.
The anti-war candidacy of Sen. George McGovern in 1972 was a defining moment for a generation. A brave World War II bomber pilot, McGovern spoke from the heart. "I regard the long and sickening involvement of the United States in this conflict in Southeast Asia as the most immoral act in our national history. There is no way to end it except to end the war."
Many Americans agreed with him, but most did not want to be told that their country was acting immorally. McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts, and lost by 18 million popular votes -- still the largest popular-vote losing margin in history.
"This was done for national security reasons, not political ones," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, "but the political impact is clear. "No one is going to be able to run on a theme that the president is 'weak on defense' or 'weak on terrorism.'"
But maybe Donald Trump still will. After he gets done filming the last episode of "Celebrity Apprentice."
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more