Obama’s ‘horses and bayonets’ debate jab makes few ripples in Va.’s Navy country


During the final presidential debate, Republican challenger Mitt Romney contended that the Navy has fewer ships than it did in 1917. Obama, arguing modern nuclear-powered aircraft carriers cannot be compared to battleships of old, replied, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
October 23, 2012

It drew instant fire from Republican leaders, forced Timothy M. Kaine to do some fancy footwork and inspired yet another Internet meme.

But it might be hard to imagine President Obama’s horses-and-bayonets comment, which critics said blithely brushed aside concerns about a shrunken Navy, playing any better than it did in Hampton Roads — home to the world’s biggest naval base and the huge Newport News shipyards.

During his final debate with Obama on Monday night, Republican challenger Mitt Romney contended that the Navy has fewer ships than it did in 1917. Obama, arguing that modern ­nuclear-powered aircraft carriers cannot be compared to battleships of old, replied, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.”

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Republican former governor George Allen, who is running for Senate, pounced, seeking to connect the comment to defense cuts that could take effect early next year.

“A Shrinking Military Is Not A Joke,” read the headline on Allen’s news release.

Meanwhile, Kaine, a Democratic former governor and Allen’s opponent, issued a statement that took pains to neither praise nor knock Obama’s remark. It said only that he would “work with both parties to continue strategic investments” in the military.

Yet as Obama’s comment made waves among politicians and pundits outside this Navy-heavy region, it seemed to hardly make a ripple in Hampton Roads.

In more than a dozen interviews, shipbuilders and Navy families — Republicans and Democrats alike — mostly said Obama was just stating the obvious: Numbers aren’t the whole story when it comes to naval power.

“Some of the things we put out in the water can do what two ships used to do,” said Arthur Fladger, 55, a nuclear refueler at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Ernie Smith, a 32-year-old engineer at the same shipyard, said, “A modern ballistic submarine, you can shoot a nuclear missile halfway around the world.”

Fladger and Smith both support Obama. But even some Romney supporters agreed that the flap over the president’s comments was uncalled for. Among them were Nancy and Jack Magee, both in their 80s, who were lunching at the Pancake House just down the street from the Navy base in Norfolk.

Jack, 87, spent 36 years in the Navy and captained two submarines. Nancy, 83, worked for the Navy before having their first child.

Both plan to vote for Romney because they believe he will do more to beef up defense. But they had no problem with Obama’s comment.

“War is fought differently now,” Nancy said.

A few tables away sat Jose Navarro of Chesapeake, the outlier in this unscientific man-on-the-street survey. He voted for Obama four years ago but considered himself undecided this time around — until the president uttered the horses-and-bayonets crack. The comment pushed him into Romney territory.

“That kind of turned me off,” said Navarro, 51, who does database administration as a civilian Navy employee. “That was kind of sarcastic and unpresidential. . . . He sounded pompous.”

Back in Newport News, one Romney supporter also took issue with the comment, though he was not particularly on fire about it.

“It could have been said different,” said one of them, Wayne Edwards, 54, who installs granite countertops in homes and resurfaces decks on Navy ships as a private contractor.

The comment did jump out at Romy Singh, owner of the 7-Eleven just outside the shipyard gates. Rearranging bottles of Ga­tor­ade in his store, he said his business depends heavily on the military. Yet, he had no quarrel with the president’s remark.

An Obama supporter, Singh said he was more concerned about Romney’s aggressive stand on China.

“That made me uneasy,” he said.

Chad Bailey, 27, who leans libertarian, said Obama’s comment didn’t make his ears perk up, even though he works as an electrical instructor at the shipyard.

“It didn’t really hit home,” he said.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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