Flipping the Script

Obama’s Osama Bin Laden Ad Is a Well-Played Attack

With a new ad touting bin Laden’s killing, Obama’s just borrowing a GOP strategy, says Michelle Cottle.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photos

Osama bin Laden has been dead a year, Team Obama has made a campaign ad touting the president’s ballsiness in ordering the kill, and suddenly everyone from John McCain to Arianna Huffington is going batshit.

It was hardly surprising that members of Team Romney found the ad objectionable, as it blatantly suggests the governor would have responded differently. Romney’s foreign-policy advisers have proclaimed themselves “saddened” by the president’s “unbecoming” conduct, while longtime GOP über-operative Ed Gillespie asserts that the ad proves Obama is “one of the most divisive presidents in American history.”

McCain, meanwhile, slipped on his serious statesman’s jacket to scold, “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.”

The most flamboyant shot, however, came from the left, as Huffington denounced the ad as “one of the most despicable things you can do.”

Really, Arianna? One of the most despicable? That’s a mighty bold statement, and it suggests a severe lack of imagination. But if that’s how you really feel, allow me to retort.

Boo hoo hoo.

Obama has made an attack ad. A tough one. One that suggests Governor Romney doesn’t have the right stuff to cope with the very dangerous world we live in. An attack that arguably—gasp!—politicizes national security.

Oh my God. The nerve. You know who this puts Obama on par with? Every fricking Republican who has run for office since 2001. Oh, yeah, and Hillary Clinton, whose infamous 3 a.m. phone-call ad from 2008 is being revisited in the wake of Obama’s new one.

Let us take a brief stroll down memory lane to the 2004 Republican Convention. The not-so-subtle theme: vote for John Kerry and al Qaeda will invade your homes and eat your children. This is only a slight exaggeration. Dick Cheney hasn’t uttered a word in the past decade that didn’t raise the specter of terrorists at the door. And Rudy Giuliani? Joe Biden said it best when he noted that for a long stretch, every sentence that came out of Hizzoner’s mouth consisted of “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”

Going even further back, who can forget President Bush’s much-ridiculed, flight-suity “Mission Accomplished” speech on May 1, 2003, from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln? But you know one of the main reasons that photo op was so widely ridiculed? It was bollocks. The “mission” in Iraq was anything but “accomplished.” Bush was touting an achievement he had not yet even achieved.

Osama bin Laden, by contrast, is very, very dead.

Admittedly, this is not common behavior for the Democratic Party, whose candidates usually shy away from politicizing foreign policy. Why? Well, in part because they usually screw up any and all efforts to campaign on it. (See: Kerry, John, 2004.)

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Fair or not, the knock on the “Mommy Party” is that it is too weak and indecisive to handle the hard-bitten arena of foreign affairs. In your typical election, the Dems’ goal is to turn discussion in the more nurturing direction of domestic issues. Indeed, it feels downright through-the-looking-glass for a Democratic contender to find himself, as Obama now does, being the one voters trust, by double digits over the Republican, to handle international affairs.

Despite this, Romney has been swinging at the president’s international cred of late. The governor has suggested he would be tougher than Obama on everyone from China to Iran, while his foreign-policy adviser Richard Williamson has flat out accused Obama of “naiveté and fecklessness.”

Those sound like fighting words to me.

In her denunciation of Obama, Huffington links the new ad to Hillary’s 3 a.m. one, which, though harsh, was considered pretty compelling at the time. So compelling, indeed, that you know who repurposed parts of it for the general election? Yep, John McCain. In late August, the Republican nominee took chunks of Hillary’s ad and her criticisms of Obama’s foreign-policy inexperience; mashed them up with scary footage of tanks, missiles, and armed Islamists; and tied it all up with the closing message “Hillary’s right.”

So you’ll have to excuse me if I find McCain’s shock and outrage a smidge hollow.

As for Arianna, maybe the notion of Obama as a real politician—as opposed to some above-the-fray hopey-changey transformational post-partisan savior—has broken her idealistic heart. I’m sure there were plenty of people out there in 2008 who believed Obama would upend the politics as usual of Washington—that he would somehow get congressional Republicans to come to the bargaining table in a spirit of respectful cooperation and sensible compromise. I suspect some of them also cling to the belief that candy-colored unicorns will ultimately gallop in to save the day.

Is Team Obama’s ad a political punch to Romney’s magnificently chiseled jaw? Of course it is. It is harsh, exploitative, tacky even.

It is, in short, perfectly in keeping with today’s political climate.

A couple of weeks after Obama’s 2008 victory, then-House Financial Services chairman Barney Frank grumped to me that the president elect’s can’t-we-all-get-along message gave him “post-partisan depression” and predicted the GOP would quickly “dis-post-partisan” Obama.

Hardly seems sportsmanlike for Republicans to be complaining about their success in this matter.