05/03/2012 02:33 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

Controversial Obama Campaign Ad Draws a Page From GOP Playbook

For several days, Barack Obama's campaign ad about the bin Laden raid has been drawing heat from Left and Right.

I have a different take: I think the ad was darn-near brilliant.

In case you've been out squirrel hunting, you can find the ad right here. Called "One Chance," it features former President Bill Clinton.

"That's one thing George Bush said that was right," he says, pointing at the camera. "The president is the decider-in-chief." Then Clinton tells how Obama made the tough choice to hunt down Osama bin Laden despite huge risks.

The ad, of course, doesn't stop there. The words, "which path would Mitt Romney have taken?" flash across the screen. Next comes a 2007 news clip from CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who notes Romney said, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."

"It's generated a little controversy," Blitzer said back then.

By now we know Obama's 90-second campaign commercial has already generated a lot more.

One liberal critic, Huffington Post Founder and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington on CBS News called the ad "despicable."

"It's one thing to celebrate the fact that they did such a great job... but to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do," she said. "It's the same thing that Hillary Clinton did with the 3 a.m. call. You know, 'you are not ready to be Commander in Chief.'"

Conservative Republicans meanwhile cried foul, noting among other things that Romney had praised the president when the raid succeeded.

When asked Monday if he would have given the order to attack bin Laden's compound, Romney responded, "Of course. Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."

On Tuesday in New York, he declared that the president's ad was an "inappropriate use of a very important event that brought Americans together."

But the flap the ad has generated simply establishes how well it has worked.

Mind you, Arianna Huffington's objections are spot on. She points out that ads like this create a sort of macho swagger in political campaigns that can be carried into the White House and decisions on whether to wage war. Later she says, "There is no way to know whether Romney would have been as decisive."

Sadly, however, wisdom and fairness are hardly central to contemporary American political campaigns. If they were, the far more scurrilous Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004 would have resulted in George W. Bush's defeat. It did not.

Obama's campaign team instinctively knew to punch first rather than waiting to be punched later.

National defense has long been the Achilles Heel of Democrats and the starting point of GOP attacks. Remember Republicans ridiculing Michael Dukakis for riding around in a tank with a helmet that made him look like a middle-schooler on a field trip? Or the Bush campaign ad of the wolves waiting by the edge of the woods while a speaker intoned, "In an increasingly dangerous world .... John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations .... weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."

Republicans didn't worry about whether those attacks were fair. They knew they were effective. That's why, notes The Huffington Post's Sam Stein, those who worked in the Kerry campaign are distainful about Republicans crying foul now.

By releasing the Clinton ad just before the anniversary of bin Laden's death, Obama highlighted what indisputably is one of his more formidable accomplishments. He legitimately put Romney on the defensive for words he'd said in the past. And he surely blunted what could still be a Republican assault against his announcement that the United States has begun the transition to a post-war relationship with Afghanistan (Republicans already have criticized the administration for pushing tougher sanctions against Iran rather than beating the drums of war).

I'd argue that if liberal Democrats want to win this election, they need to embrace the president's decision not to stay above the fray. That's precisely what got him into so much trouble during the first three years of his presidency, when he stood back as Republicans defined him as everything from a supporter of so-called death panels to a weak leader.

We live in a country today in which industrialists like the Koch brothers are pouring virtually unlimited funds -- tens of millions of dollars -- into Super PACs in an effort to complete a right-wing sweep that already has made deep inroads in Congress, the Supreme Court, and state and local governments. Wrote the respected political scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in the Washington Post this week:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics.

Like it or not, the Obama campaign has to hit early and hit hard. Plenty of well-funded haymakers will be coming his way soon. Best to strike early rather than to stand defenseless, a situation that's been the case for most Democrats since at least the days in which Sen. Joe McCarthy hurled the label of "communist" at State Department employees during the last years of the Truman administration.

In an interesting article in Salon, Steve Kornacki writes: "In picking the bin Laden fight, Obama is partly defending himself against the Republicans' caricaturing. But he's also trying to turn the tables and put them on the defensive on an issue they think they own. This is what Democrats have for years been agitating for. And now we'll get to see if it works."

I believe it just might.