Mitt Romney, in an interview with Charlie Rose last night, says the Obama campaign’s questions as to whether Bin Laden would have been killed under a President Romney amount to “silly attacks”:
CHARLIE ROSE: What people worry about, David Brooks wrote in a column in The New York Times today, is that this will turn out into who can tear each other down the most and there will not be a fair airing of the issues that are of concern to most Americans — negative, negative, negative. And we saw that during the GOP primaries.
MITT ROMNEY: I think what you’ve seen so far with the President and I won’t rehearse all of the attacks, but you began with Romney wouldn’t have gone after Osama bin Laden. These silly kinds of attacks, it’s like, what has that got to do with getting our economy going? Of course, I would have taken out Osama bin Laden , but what’s the right course for the economy? What should we do with taxes? What should we do with regulation? What should we do with trade overseas? What should we do with our energy policy? How about our labor policy? These are important issues people care about. The President’s not talking about them.
Note the clever wording here: Romney is subtly trying to narrow the set of questions that are currently being debated in relation to Bin Laden’s killing. In Romney’s telling, the question has been reduced to, Would you have taken out Bin Laden if you’d had the chance? As if the question is merely whether Romney would have simply flipped a switch to end Bin Laden’s life if he’d been given the opportunity.
Elsewhere in the Charlie Rose interview, Romney also says that “of course” he would have given the order to undertake the mission. Maybe Romney would have. But given that we now know that the choice Obama opted for was far risker than other options that were open to him, it’s hard to see why it’s out of bounds to note that we can’t know what Romney would have done with any certainty. And by narrowing the debate in this fashion, Romney is also trying to obscure the fact that larger questions remain about whether his previous remarks on the topic do, in fact, suggest that he might have opted for a different overall approach.
The larger context is also key. Even though there’s a national media debate raging over whether Obama’s touting of his role in the killing is fair game, it has mysteriously vanished from the conversation that Romney has spent months and months on end assailing Obama as a weak leader, as too willing to kowtow to foreign enemies, and as overly apologetic about the exercise of American military force. In this context, is it really not relevant for Obama to point out his role in killing the terrorist leader that Republicans themselves held up for years as America’s leading global antagonist — one that Republicans said Democrats couldn’t be trusted to wage war against?
If you want to know whether such issues are legitimate fodder for a presidential race, just ask Romney himself. During a speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Romney blasted Obama as untrustworthy when it comes to combating “the threat from radical, violent jihad,” which he contrasted with John McCain, who, apparently unlike Obama, understands that “radical, violent Islam is evil,” and will do everything he can to defeat it.
As I’ve said before, I don’t think Obama should get carried away in his chest thumping about Bin Laden. And there’s a legit debate to be had over whether Obama risks pushing this too far in political terms. But Romney can’t argue that Obama is a weak leader who is insufficiently confrontational towards America’s enemies while simultaneously claiming the debate over Obama’s role in ordering the killing of Bin Laden — and what it says about the two men’s larger approaches to terrorism and national security — is a mere sideshow to real issues.