Imagine that you called a carpenter to come repair your deck, and after looking at the rotted timbers and split rails, he said, "Well, I can fix this deck. But the one thing I'm not going to do is come over here and engage in a bunch of carpentry. That would be wrong."
You'd probably suspect that the carpenter was insane. Yet politicians and their campaign advisers–people for whom politics is a profession no less than carpentry is the carpenter's profession–are constantly complaining that their opponents are engaged in "politics," or are committing the horrible sin of "politicizing" something that shouldn't be political.
So it was when Barack Obama's re-election campaign took the opportunity of the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden to remind voters who was president when it happened, in the form of an ad retelling the story and questioning whether Mitt Romney would have made the same decision as Obama did were he in the Oval Office at the time. The condemnations came from the expected places, and even one or two unexpected places (Arianna Huffington called the ad "one of the most despicable things you can do"). No one said that the Obama campaign was lying about anything, or raising an issue that ought to be irrelevant to a presidential campaign. The only problem seemed to be that an incumbent president was taking political advantage of the purest moment of triumph in his first term to argue that the voters ought to grant him a second. Shocking. Surely Republicans would never stoop so low.
Romney protested that "of course" he would have ordered the raid that killed Bin Laden, but the truth is we don't really know whether he would have. And that's precisely why we ought to have these discussions. There are things about a presidency we can predict well, and things we can't. For instance, when Barack Obama ran for president, he said he wanted a comprehensive health care reform, and when he took office, he pursued it in largely (but not exactly) the same form he had advocated during the campaign. Mitt Romney says he wants to cut taxes, and we can be pretty sure if he wins office, he'll try to cut taxes. Presidents keep the overwhelming majority of the promises they make as candidates, so the best way to predict what they'll do in office is to look at what they propose during the campaign.
But foreign policy, particularly in matters of war, is very different. Legislation, where you follow a precise (if often maddening) course from bill to law, is all but irrelevant. You have to respond to events that can't be foreseen, involving people and forces from other nations that are often difficult to understand and even harder to predict. So when we're trying to determine what kind of actions a potential president would or wouldn't take in foreign policy, we have to piece together a picture from an inconclusive jumble of statements, experiences, and character traits. Each might give us some hint of how the next president will deal with changing and dangerous situations throughout the world, but no combination will make us certain we know what this candidate would do.
And when it comes to crisis situations like the Bin Laden raid, we have even less to go on. Mitt Romney has been a corporate leader and a governor, but he's never been in a situation where he had a short amount of time to make a decision that could potentially result in the deaths of many people and a national humiliation, or an extraordinary and lasting triumph. Barack Obama had never been in that situation before becoming president either. The last president who had that kind of experience before coming to the White House was Dwight Eisenhower.
At the moment, we're arguing about something that has already happened, not something that might happen in the future, which if nothing else takes fear out of the equation (to a degree, at least). That's in stark contrast to 2004, when Republicans literally argued that if John Kerry were elected, terrorists would kill us. ("It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, " said Dick Cheney on the campaign trail, "because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.") But that also means that the discussion we have about the Bin Laden killing is a few steps removed from whatever crisis the president will face in 2013 or 2014, and how he'll approach the life-or-death decision he has to make.
And there will be such a crisis; we just don't know what it will involve. As Barack Obama has pointed out repeatedly, the president doesn't have to make the easy decisions; those are handled at the staff level. It's the complicated, uncertain, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't decisions that reach the Oval Office. "Politics" is the only means we have to assess what each of these two men will bring to that moment when it comes. It might not be a particularly good guide, but it's all we've got.
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