Tomorrow is a big anniversary -- one year since the day Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. The president is marking the occasion by, among other things, sitting for an exclusive interview with Brian Williams in the White House Situation Room, which an NBC announcement touted as "the most secret and secure part" of the presidential compound. The conversation will be part of an hour-long special airing tomorrow night.
The administration has every reason to celebrate, as does the country. The president made the right decision, and it was a great example of leadership, courage, and competence at a time when all three are in short supply in our politics.
Less laudable is the other way the administration is celebrating: by rolling out an attack ad questioning whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call to go after the man behind the 9/11 attacks. In the ad, after Bill Clinton extols the decision to greenlight the high-risk operation, the question "What path would Mitt Romney have taken?" appears ominously on the screen. (For more on the ad, see HuffPost's Jon Ward's insightful takedown here.)
Signaling that this is going to be a key line of attack for the reelection campaign, Vice President Biden hit the hustings to bolster the message. "Thanks to President Obama, bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive," Biden said in a speech last week at NYU's law school. "You have to ask yourself, 'had Governor Romney been president, could he have used the same slogan in reverse?'" Biden also took the opportunity to assure the crowd that "the president has a big stick."
There are many legitimate and important policy differences between Governor Romney and President Obama, and many reasons why I believe it's crucial that the president be reelected -- but the depth of Mitt Romney's patriotism (or the relative size of his "stick") is not one of them.
Indeed, this line of attack -- that a combination of an opponent's lack of patriotism and low machismo makes him a national security threat, and therefore unelectable -- is particularly "despicable" (and sadly has a long and ugly history in our country).
In 2008, we saw it in the "3 A.M. call" ad Hillary Clinton used against Obama in their primary battle. In an infamous example from 2002, just a year after 9/11, Saxby Chambliss questioned then-Senator Max Cleland's fortitude by juxtaposing images of Cleland with those of bin Laden, and casting doubt on his "courage to lead." One would think that Cleland's having lost three limbs fighting in Vietnam might put him beyond reach of such attacks. One would be wrong. "Worse than disgraceful," said Senator John McCain of the ad at the time, "it's reprehensible." McCain must have forgotten those sentiments, since six years later he was out campaigning for Saxby's reelection. (A model of inconsistency, McCain has now doubled back, criticizing Obama's attack on Romney "for diminishing the memory of Sept. 11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad.")
It would be nice if McCain had stuck by his original take on Chamliss' ad, and if the rest of us joined him, so we could finally rid our political debate of this toxic ploy. I say this not because of everyone's desire for civility and decency in our political campaigns (though there's that, too), but for reasons far more serious. The internalization of this cartoonish notion of machismo and the acceptance of it as a value in political leadership has had a deeply detrimental effect on the decisions of our leaders. It reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Bill Murray played the host of a game-show called "¿Quien Es Mas Macho?" It's much funnier as a sketch than as the rationale for how we select our presidents.
Does anybody doubt that the fear of being labeled a wimp in some future attack ad played a factor in the lopsided 2002 Congressional votes authorizing the disastrous war in Iraq? It's hard not to wonder whether the "who is more macho?" factor also played a role in President Obama's decision to escalate the equally ruinous war in Afghanistan -- where, by the way, 138 coalition soldiers have been killed just this year. I suspect that this tragic unintended consequence of prolonging an unnecessary and unwinnable war will not be mentioned during this week's celebrations.
Of course, most often it's Democrats who are the targets of the lack-of-machismo charge. Which is why it is so disheartening to see Obama ratifying this line of attack instead of leading the fight against it. President Obama made the right call on taking out bin Laden, one that carried great political risk (as Clinton puts it in the ad: "Suppose the Navy SEALs went in there and it hadn't been bin Laden. Suppose they had been captured or killed."). And he deserves credit for it. But having made the tough call and having succeeded is exactly what should have given him the leverage to refuse to continue the destructive "who is more macho?" cycle of bravado.
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