Osama bin Laden's Life in Hiding

05.01.12

Michael Tomasky: How the GOP Became a Party of Whiners Over Osama

Republicans love to act like tough guys. Yet it’s the Democrat in the White House who got bin Laden—and the GOP that’s throwing a temper tantrum about a modest Obama ad.

It couldn’t be more hilarious, watching these Republicans rend their garments over the Obama administration’s bin Laden video. Imaging the paroxysms we’d have been forced to endure if George W. Bush had iced the dreaded one is all we need to do to understand how hypocritical it all is. But what obviously gets under Republicans’ skin is not the fact of this video’s existence, but the fact that Barack Obama got him and they didn’t, which destroys their assumption of the past decade that they are “the 9/11 party.” And more than that—and this is the real story here—it’s the fact that the Democrats don’t appear to be afraid of the Republicans anymore. That, to Republicans, is what’s truly unacceptable.

Have you watched the video? Well, click the link and do so. It’s hardly capital P political. It’s about how the president is all alone when making such decisions. Bill Clinton provides the narration—a gentlemanly gesture, I thought, since Obama hasn’t always ladled great praise in Bill’s direction. It’s a clever validation, so that it’s not Obama himself or some hired-hand voice-over bragging on the exploit, but one of the few living other men who has occupied that office.

The allegedly controversial turn is taken when the video starts to mount the argument that if Mitt Romney had been president, bin Laden would still be busy keeping those four wives satisfied. The 2007 Romney quote invoked in the ad went: “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” It’s supposed to be outrageous, or something, that the video used only that quote and makes no reference to some clarifying remarks Romney made later that year.

So this is the new standard for political ads—that if a politician said something about Topic X and an ad quotes it, that’s no longer good enough? Suddenly it’s only acceptable if the ad makers scour the record for everything the candidate said and then take care to ensure that the full measure of the candidate’s views is fairly represented? Okay. Let’s hold Romney’s campaign and American Crossroads and all the rest of them to that standard this fall. By the way, what Romney said one month after the initial comments was this: “We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person ... It’s more than Osama bin Laden. But he is going to pay, and he will die.” To the folks at Fox News the Obama ad was under some mystical obligation to note this instance of ass-covering.

Video screenshot

Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reminds us that al-Qaeda's mastermind, Ayman al-Zawahiri is still very much alive.

Which Romney undertook, incidentally, after he was attacked by John McCain for not being sufficiently hawkish on the bin Laden question. Today, of course, McCain is up there excoriating the president who was sufficiently hawkish on bin Laden. Allegedly it’s hypocritical of Obama because Hillary Clinton ran an ad that mentioned bin Laden in 2008, and the Obama people complained about it. OK, McCain has a point there. It was stupid of the Obama people to whine about that in 2008. If McCain had stopped there, fine. But he also said, “Shame on Barack Obama for diminishing the memory of September 11.”

Republicans will try to intimidate the president into not mentioning how he got bin Laden—because they know it hurts them and makes them look like the incompetents they are.

Oh, please. See, it works like this. The rule is: Only Republicans are allowed to even mention September 11. Because it happened on their watch, you see. In a rational world, that would count as a demerit—and indeed might have led to George W. Bush’s removal from office, or at least to far more strenuous demands that he offer proof that he took that August 6 PDB seriously. But in the “Americaland” parallel-universe amusement-park ride the GOP took us all on over the past decade, it actually registers a plus, because it gives them the right to speak about how it felt to be in charge on that awful day, how hideously unknowable the burden was, etc. They own, so they believe, the stories, the images, the pain. So they’re allowed to speak for America on the subject in a way they believe Democrats are not.

Given this context, it really grates their cheese that Obama, of all people, is the one who has earned the right to boast about killing bin Laden. Bush had seven years. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, no stone would be unturned in the search, he vowed. A mere few months later, Bush was “truly not that concerned about him.” This was one of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve ever heard a president say. Imagine if Roosevelt had said that in the spring of 1942 about Admiral Yamamoto. Or indeed, imagine if Obama had come into office saying that. He’d have been ... I guess I’m not allowed to say crucified, but something close to that. Instead, Obama did the opposite. He actually was concerned about where bin Laden was, and he did the brave thing that Bush notably and demonstrably failed to do.

And that accomplishment has reversed the so-called natural order of things. For Republicans, 9/11 politics are supposed to be permanently frozen in mid-2002, with Democrats shivering like Proust under the bedcovers as all the manly Republican men (Five-deferments Cheney and the rest) explained to America that Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat and that anyone who didn’t agree with this assertion hated freedom. They knew all this, you understand, because they were in office on the fateful day, which gave them “credibility” on these matters.

Between now and November, the Republicans will try to do two things re bin Laden. They’ll try to say it wasn’t that big a deal. “Even Jimmy Carter,” Mitt Romney said yesterday, would have issued the order. Why “even” Jimmy Carter? Carter actually did issue a very risky order, and even though it went the wrong way on him, the evidence tells us that of course he would have. Bill Clinton also tried to get him, but missed him by a couple of hours. So the president to question on this score is Bush.

And second, they’ll wail about 9/11 whenever Democrats do mention bin Laden. They will do this not because Republicans have dedicated themselves to preserving the memory of 9/11. Rather, they’ll do it in an effort to intimidate Democrats into not mentioning it—because they know it hurts them and makes them look like the incompetents they are. Well it’s not 2002, and Democrats should be afraid no longer.

HELP SAVE THE PROSPECT: Word trickled out Monday that The American Prospect, the important liberal-opinion journal, is having funding issues and may have to close its doors in May. This would be unspeakably sad. TAP, as we call it, has been a great and necessary magazine for two decades. Founded in Cambridge by a remarkable trio of intellectuals—Bob Kuttner, Paul Starr, and Robert Reich—the Prospect started life as a quarterly journal, publishing important policy debates and analyses. It moved to Washington and became over time more of a political magazine. It was an innovator among its competitors in adapting to the Web, starting a staff blog back in 2002, well before most other magazines.

I know this history well because I had the distinct privilege of editing the magazine from 2003 to 2006 (note: My wife, Sarah Kerr, is currently the books and culture editor). The people who have either worked there or regularly written for it make for an astonishing list: Jim Fallows, Josh Marshall, Ezra Klein; Matt Yglesias, our own Michelle Goldberg, Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic, Nick Confessore of the Times, and dozens more whose names are a tad less prominent but who are highly regarded journalists in their subject areas. Through the writing-fellows program, the Prospect has established a proud record of identifying talented young people and nurturing their skills. The magazine has done an enormous amount of good and has had tremendous impact over the years. If you can think of a way to help the magazine in its hour of need, please let us know.