The Obama campaign chose to release its controversial attack “ad” about the killing of Osama bin Laden last Friday—a day when the news cycle would otherwise have been dominated by negative economic tidings: the Commerce Department’s announcement that G.D.P. growth in the first quarter slowed to close to two per cent. If the intention was to divert attention onto other matters, and there was surely some of that, it succeeded brilliantly. Today’s anniversary of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was always going to be newsworthy. But the row over the campaign ad, and whether Mitt Romney would have approved the raid, has transformed a one-off story into a political dustup that is now in its fourth day.
For David Axelrod and the rest of Team Obama, things could hardly have worked out better. For the Romney campaign, it is another damaging diversion, and the boys in Beantown have only themselves to blame. Their rivals in Chicago set a trap for them, and they walked right into it. Rather than ignoring the ad, or dismissing it quickly and moving onto other topics less favorable to Obama, the Romney campaign decided to stand and fight on ground it cannot hope to win.
“Nobody can make that decision for you,” Clinton intones to the camera. “Suppose the Navy SEALs went in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they had been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him… He took the harder and the more honorable path…” The ad then changes tack, and a question appears on the screen: “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” This is followed by a sentence from a Reuters news story dated August, 2007: “Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for vowing to strike al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary.” Then Wolf Blitzer is shown reading out a quote from Romney: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars trying to catch one person.”
In leaving the impression that Romney wouldn’t have ordered the raid, there is no doubt that the Obama campaign selectively edited his words. As the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward pointed out yesterday, Romney didn’t actually rule out attacking targets in Pakistan. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, on August 2, 2007, he said,
It’s wrong for a person running for the president of the United States to get on TV and say, “We’re going to go into your country unilaterally.” Of course, America always maintains our option to do whatever we think is in the best interests of America. But we don’t go out and say, “Ladies and gentlemen of Germany, if ever there was a problem in your country, we didn’t think you were doing the right thing, we reserve the right to come in and get them out.” We don’t say those things. We keep our options quiet.
The quote from Romney that the Obama ad references was taken from an interview he did with Liz Sidoti, an Associated Press reporter, in April, 2007. Here is the relevant part of the transcript:
LIZ SIDOTI: “Why haven’t we caught bin Laden in your opinion?”
GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: “I think, I wouldn’t want to over-concentrate on Bin Laden. He’s one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He’s by no means the only leader. It’s a very diverse group—Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that.”
SIDOTI: “But would the world be safer if bin laden were caught?”
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: “Yes, but by a small percentage increase—a very insignificant increase in safety by virtue of replacing bin Laden with someone else. Zarqawi—we celebrated the killing of Zarqawi, but he was quickly replaced. Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is—it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin laden or a few of his associates.”
Romney’s statements can be interpreted in several ways. Some would say that he was displaying a good grasp of global politics and the nature of jihad. Others would say he was taking his eye off the ball. Either way, there is nothing in what he said to suggest how he would have reacted had he been in Obama’s shoes this time last year. Eric Edelman, one of Romney’s foreign policy advisers, is right when he says that “the comments by Governor Romney were taken out of context in a way that distorts their meaning.”
From a moral perspective, this is disturbing. I agree with my colleague Ryan Lizza that journalists should call out politicians who use such underhand tactics. But we are going to be busy. In today’s political campaigns, twisting your opponents’ words is standard practice: all sides do it, and all sides have to be prepared for it. Late last year, the Romney campaign released an ad that quoted Obama as saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we are going to lose.” Obama had actually been quoting one of John McCain’s advisers, but that didn’t stop the Romney campaign from misusing his words.
Although often referred to as “ads,” these zinger spots aren’t really advertisements at all: most of them don’t get broadcast. They are simply videos that the campaigns post online in an attempt to shape the daily news narrative. A better name for them might be “bait.” The rational strategy for an opponent is to ignore them or to dismiss them lightly, giving the media little reason to cover them. But rather than doing this, the Romney campaign and its allies reacted in a way that was guaranteed to give the story some legs.
First, John McCain issued a statement in which he said, “Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11th and the killing of Osama bin Laden by turning it into a cheap political attack ad.” As if Republicans haven’t been exploiting 9/11 since it happened. To quote Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News: “Are they kidding? If it had been Bush who ordered the hit on Bin Laden, the Republicans would have wanted to make the day it happened into an instant national holiday.”
Then Romney himself wades in. First, he follows McCain’s line, getting all high and mighty. Then he tells reporters, “Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.” And today, he appears on “CBS This Morning” to whine about Obama playing politics again, and add, “Of course, I would have” ordered the raid. This afternoon, he is scheduled to appear with Rudy Giuliani in an event that will draw even more attention to the story. He would have been better advised to spend the day at a factory, an abandoned real-estate project, or a job center.
Out in Chicago, David Axelrod and his cronies must be swapping high fives all the way down Michigan Avenue. In Boston, meanwhile, Team Romney appears oblivious to the lessons of its own experience in the dark art of putting out underhanded attack ads. “Here’s the bottom line,” Dan Hirschhorn, a blogger at Ad Age, pointed out during the brouhaha over the twisted Obama quote on the economy. “Romney’s already won this particular messaging war, and the fib helped him do it….The predictable sniping today between his camp and Obama’s has elevated him and accomplished just what the deception was supposed to.”