By Bob Cesca: You might have noticed how the Democrats last week weren’t afraid to ballyhoo the Obama administration’s tenacious pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. This pivotal event in the president’s first term represented what could be the beginning of a major shift in the perception of the Democrats as an inept, wimpy faction that tends to mishandle foreign policy and national security endeavors.
In spite of the Bush administration’s ineptitude on this front, there continues to be a massive “strong on national security” polling gap in favor of the Republicans. Back in 2010, a year before Bin Laden was killed, the Republicans were crushing the Democrats on this front by a margin of 27 points, 59 percent to 33 percent. Even with the killing of Bin Laden and the ending of the Iraq war, the Democrats lag behind the Republicans by a full 10 points, according to Rasmussen (admittedly, a Republican-leaning polling outfit, but you get the idea).
So there’s still a lot of work to be done on this issue even though, by all empirical accounts and given the Obama record versus the dismal Bush record, the Democrats should be crushing it on the national security polling front. The difference is obviously not the actions and policies of the respective administrations, but specifically in how they talk about national security and foreign policy successes. If it was just successes minus a political PR effort, the Obama Democratic Party would be out-polling the Republicans but, as of right now, it’s just the president who’s leading Mitt Romney by around 9 points on this issue. Not enough, obviously, to change the broader party perception held by voters that still shows Republicans as stronger on nation security and foreign policy. I suppose eight years of “bring ’em on” hubris, jingoism and lies from the Bush/Cheney’s PR apparatus regarding the false notion of “keeping us safe” has stuck with voters.
The only way to overcome such a gap is for the Democratic Party — not just the Obama administration — to boast its national security posture. Hence all of the Bin Laden death talk last week. And when it comes to rank-and-file voters, you’re not going to find much sympathy for the deadliest terrorist in modern history.
Over the weekend, noted foreign policy reporter Jeremy Scahill appeared on “Up with Chris Hayes” and slammed the use of Bin Laden’s death “as a football to spike on the national stage.” Scahill and others on the left who tend to focus on the president’s national security and civil liberties record above all else have criticized the targeted killing of Bin Laden and especially the use of the mission for political purposes. I hasten to note that, yes, Scahill, Greenwald et al have an important role to play as the idealist, pacifist conscience of the far-left. They say Bin Laden should’ve been captured alive and granted due process in the courts, either in American courts or in a Nuremberg-style international tribunal. But this carries with it significant dangers, both political and practical that I’m not sure they entirely grasp.
The biggest mistake many Scahill types make is to somehow divorce politics from policy when, in reality, there’s a considerable Venn diagram overlap between the two. If, in some sort of fantasy scenario, you were to remove politics and public opinion from policy, leaders could make significantly more idealized decisions about such matters. But we have a system whereby the only means to accomplish certain goals is to compromise or outright sacrifice others. In this case, however, it’s probably a bit of a no-brainer. Kill Bin Laden, the most hated criminal in the world, potentially win re-election and therefore have an opportunity to further lock down a left-of-center agenda? Yes, please. This approach further calculates that the “due process for Bin Laden” crowd is miniscule and probably won’t find too much sympathy to make an electoral difference especially when compared to the colossal upsides that come with a “take him out” order.
Admittedly, this is a complex issue — the intentional killing of terrorist leader, but the upside could very well mean securing healthcare for 30 million Americans, preventing a 66 percent cut in Medicaid funds to mostly children and disabled Americans, the protection of reproductive rights, preventing a significant rightward ideological shift on the Supreme Court for possibly another generation and the further establishment of equal rights for LGBT Americans as well as undocumented workers. The list goes on and on. Yes, a life is a life. But the life of a known and admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (as well as countless others) simply doesn’t compare with the potential for what a second Obama term as president could mean for millions upon millions of Americans. (During the healthcare debate, Harvard released a statistic regarding deaths due to a lack of health insurance. The number amounted to around 3,000 per month. That’s a new 9/11 every month.) And the only way to get there is to ballyhoo the accomplishment — a concept, by the way, that the Obama administration has been heretofore slow to embrace.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t struggled with this point of view. How would I have felt if the Bush administration had killed Bin Laden? Would I be as supportive of the decision? Would I have pushed for due/judicial process? Regardless of who gave the order, I, like many Americans, probably would’ve reacted similarly. I would’ve greeted news of the death of Bin Laden with relief, just as I did when it was announced by a president I support. Relief is a realistic and human reaction, irrespective of who gave the order. But I also would’ve been critical of the Bush administration’s inevitable use of scare-tactics, which they surely would’ve incorporated into the announcement. It’s very likely they would’ve fabricated some new Toe Monster to frighten us into continued submission. I would’ve also been critical of the new powers they would’ve tried to attain given the post-announcement wave of support. It’s worth noting that there would’ve been a significantly higher bounce in approval numbers for Bush than there was for President Obama. Whenever the Bush team enjoyed some sort of polling bounce, they exploited the political capital with an egregious, over-the-top agenda that included the USA PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq, warrantless wiretaps and the attempted privatization of Social Security.
Ultimately, whatever case Scahill might make, there’s simply no real precedent when it comes to someone like Osama Bin Laden. Has an American commander-in-chief ever confronted a scenario in which a rogue terrorist financier and mastermind orchestrated the killing of thousands of people in a trio of deadly, coordinated strikes on American soil, then repeatedly admitted to committing crimes on videotape? And has that commander-in-chief had to make a choice as to whether to kill the admitted terrorist or to arrest and detain him with a variety of potentially dicey legal avenues to pursue — any one of them leading to the possible release of the terrorist while the commander-in-chief is still in power? Not that I’m aware of.
So it’s very easy to take the pacifistic high road in a vacuum and without acknowledging the political realities involved. Scahill and like-minded critics of the president have the luxury of taking the high road, but without a nod to the political ramifications, it become merely idealistic (if not entirely contrarian) single pet-issue finger-wagging. Mitt Romney wants to not only amplify a reckless imperialistic posture on the world stage, but he also wants to roll back everything the president has accomplished on the domestic and economic front. Ordering the death of Bin Laden and sufficiently boasting its success goes a long way towards preventing Romney/Ryan from accomplishing their nefarious goals. I simply can’t find fault in the Democratic approach — morally or politically. I can’t justify the forgoing of this political “football spike” when inaction and silence means a greater chance for the Republicans to re-establish deadly limits on health insurance for struggling Americans or reversing the economic recovery with larger slash-and-burn cuts in government spending. It must be quite a luxury to take such a narrow view of presidential decision-making. In this context and with these consequences, it’s simply not possible or practical.