Inside the Mitt Laden Smackdown

As you know, on the eve of the anniversary of the targeted killing of arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Obama reelection campaign launched a frontal attack on Mitt Romney. They not only celebrated Obama’s decision but freely suggested that Romney wouldn’t have had the focus or the guts to make the call.

As it happens, of course, Romney has provided plenty of evidence to back up this attack. In line with the late Bush administration policy and messaging on OBL, Romney repeatedly said that the US shouldn’t focus on hunting him down. The point wasn’t that OBL was off the hook but that we shouldn’t be focusing on this one guy. Romney followed by attacking Obama in 2008 for suggesting that he would unilaterally send American troops into Pakistan to kill bin Laden. In both cases, Romney was doing little more than repeating the strategic or political orthodoxy of the GOP leader of the moment, in the first case George W. Bush in 2007 and then John McCain in 2008.

Romney might argue — maybe even accurately? — that he never really meant any of that stuff and that he would have done just what Obama did. But that would be an awkward and challenging argument to make.

Let’s start with the premise that absolutely any sitting President who made a high stakes choice to order a commando raid that killed one of the most notorious enemies of the United States in American history would make that decision a center point in his or her campaign for a second term. To pretend otherwise is not only ludicrous; this is actually what a president should do. So much of what goes into a presidential campaign are indiciators – some bogus, others acute – about what a president would do in impossible to foresee, high stakes moments. Obama made a high stakes call. He was proved right. And he’ll bring that before the electorate to make his argument to keep him as president.

But as I first argued back in 2004, national political campaigns are only loosely about ‘issues’ as news obsessives construe them. Contemporary American campaigns are much more meta-battles over power, masculinity and dominance, what I once called “bitch-slap politics.” Not pretty perhaps but you’ll never understand campaigns without understanding things through this prism. And that’s very much what’s happening with the Obama campaign’s latest fusillade against Mitt Romney. This isn’t simply – maybe not even mainly — about the actual decision to risk so much to kill bin Laden. It’s a dance to – let’s not run away from what it really is – unman Romney in his contest with the president.

People don’t expect Democrats to make such brash moves on national security politics. It’s been a very long time since a Democratic president has been in a position to do it. Its aforementioned obviousness aside, it’s garnered a collective gasp from the pundit class. It was a smack right across the face of Mitt Romney right as he’s making a reasonably successful reintroduction of himself to the American people.

The key is less the attack itself than how Romney responds. In this sort of schoolyard power play, if you attack someone and they’re unwilling or unable to defend themselves they become weak, dominated, pathetic. And the perception among voters is much more important than most of the policy minutiae political types focus on. This is what the Swift Boat attacks were really about. I’ve always doubted that many people actually believed the attacks on John Kerry. That wasn’t the point. It was his inability to defend himself that was devastating politically. It made him an object of ridicule and contempt, demoralizing supporters and inspiring opponents. Bush owned Kerry as a result. This is the position that the Obama team is trying to put Romney in.

On its face it calls for an aggressive, hardcore response from Romney, putting to rest any idea that he lacks the inner resolve to have taken down bin Laden or stand toe to toe with Obama. But I suspect that folks in Chicago are figuring that with the wringer Romney’s been through in recent months, putting on so many different masks and faces, done so awkwardly and with diminishing credibility, that that itself will put him in a bind from which he can’t escape. Can Romney now credibly refashion himself as some mix of Conan the Barbarian and Rambo? Or will that simply reinforce the impression of falseness and unbelievability?

That’s the box the Obama camp has set for their opponent.

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