Obama, bin Laden, and the Hypocrisy of the GOP
Let’s start with what should be an uncontroversial proposition: one of the most important jobs of the president is making difficult military decisions that he or she believes will improve the security of the United States.
The reason this proposition seems to be in question is that Republicans are up in arms that President Obama is campaigning on having made such a decision: ordering the raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Obama campaign released a campaign video highlighting the decision to order the raid, and the president made the killing of bin Laden a prominent part of his recent Afghanistan speech. The GOP, led by John McCain and Mitt Romney, is indignant that the president would turn the death of bin Laden into a political issue.
In Slate, William Saletan lays bare the hypocrisy of Republican complaints about the “politicization” of the death of bin Laden by comparing the Obama campaign’s use of the bin Laden raid to the way in which Republicans used the War on Terror and the overthrow and capture of Saddam Hussein in making the case for President Bush’s re-election in 2004. Also worth noting is that McCain had no problem making then-Senator Obama’s alleged inability to make difficult decisions and keep America safe an issue in the 2008 campaign. McCain’s current statement transitions from criticizing the politicization of the bin Laden raid to criticizing President Obama’s inaction in Iran and a number of other national security decisions with which McCain disagrees with the president. How is politicizing the lack of military action in Iran any better than politicizing the successful action in Pakistan? Apparently, asking whether one candidate will do a better job of protecting the nation is only appropriate if the answer is the Republican. (The struggle of Republicans to adjust to dealing with national security as a political issue in the post-bin Laden era is nicely illustrated by the first two paragraphs of this piece.)
As a more general matter, charges by a politician that an opponent is “politicizing” an event should always be looked at with skepticism. Of course, politicians can and do exploit events in unseemly ways, and we should always be wary of politicians trying to get emotion to triumph over reason. But accusations of politicization are usually an effort to obscure policy differences and cast one’s opponent as being wrong for some objective reason. “Politicians shouldn’t use tragic events for their personal political advantage” sounds like something everyone can agree on. But whether to apply that principle to specific situations almost always depends on what one thinks of the underlying dispute. Gun-rights advocates bemoan the politicization of incidents of gun violence, but their real concern is their disagreement with the claim that the availability of guns is the cause of such incidents rather than sensitivity to the individuals involved. This is evidenced by how quickly the pro-gun side is to seize on tragedies that they believe could have been prevented by more guns.
When the Republican-controlled Congress, with President Bush’s support, intervened to try to keep Terri Schiavo on a feeding tube, liberals were furious that Republicans were exploiting a family’s suffering for political gain. While liberals were right to be outraged by Republicans’ conduct, that outrage should have been targeted more on the position being advanced—that life, defined as broadly as possible, must be protected by government intervention regardless of the choices of individuals—rather than the circumstances in which that position was advanced. If one truly believes in the extreme pro-life positions, than the death of Terri Schiavo is as appropriate a moment to advocate for that position as a tragic shooting is to advocate for stricter gun control.
Public policy choices should ultimately be about how those choices impact the lives of individual citizens. While anecdotal evidence can only carry so much weight, real-life examples of how people are impacted by government action (or inaction) are an important part of the debate.
Skepticism about charges of politicization should be even greater when the discussion is about national rather than individual tragedies. Responding to, and preventing, events like September 11th and Hurricane Katrina are an important parts of a president’s job, and how a candidate would have or has dealt with such events should be an important part of that discussion. To the extent Democrats ever suggested that President Bush was wrong to make the threat of terrorism and which candidate would better protect the country an issue—rather than being wrong on the specific claims he was making and policies he was pursuing—they were wrong to do so. The grosser hypocrisy, though, is that Republicans—after eight years of arguing that fighting the war on terror and protecting the country were the paramount considerations in choosing a leader and campaigning vigorously on those issues—would now advocate for a bright-line distinction between military action and politics simply because a Democratic president now appears to have the better of the argument.