One of the most aggressive parts of President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last week included a series of jokes mocking Mitt Romney’s foreign policy chops — indicating a breezy confidence rarely seen in Democratic candidates.
“Wasn’t it great,” one staffer said to BuzzFeed after the speech. “I’d like to see Romney try to come back at us after that.”
Another top campaign official would make a similar point, if in a more subdued fashion.
“For the first time in a very long time, a Democrat has a clear advantage on national security issues,” Michele Flournoy, a national security campaign advisor and former Defense Department official said. “This is a real significant shift in our political system.”
Voters, Flournoy went on to say, “consistently prefer President Obama over Mitt Romney on this issue by double digits.”
Indeed, Obama holds a 12 point lead over Romney when likely voters are asked which candidate would better handle foreign policy issues as president in the latest CNN/ORC poll. That’s up from a margin of just three points before the Democratic convention. And Chicago thinks that will pay off. “Even if 3, 4, 5 percent of the American people vote with national security foremost in their – national security issues foremost in their mind,” Flournoy said, “We want them to be voting for the President, given his strong record.”
Just yesterday, the campaign brought out former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and 2004 presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark to attack Romney failing to include a mention of Afghanistan in his acceptance speech. “It reveals a severe lack of understanding of the job of president... and frankly it’s unbecoming of someone who wants to be the Commander in Chief,” he told reporters on a conference call Monday afternoon. “They’re not an item on a laundry list, they’re a priority.”
All of this marks a significant historical shift in Democratic Party politics.
Since the end of the World War Two, Democrats have usually found themselves playing defense on national security. Harry Truman — the man who dropped two atomic bombs on Japan — was later accused of “losing China” when he decided not to back Chiang Kai-shek. His Republican opponents never let him forget it. The fear of losing another Asian nation to Communism was one of the reasons Truman got involved in the Korean War. In 1960, John F. Kennedy flanked Nixon to the right on the nuclear arms race. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson--also using the nuclear issue-- would be the last Democratic president of the century who was able to successfully use national security to his advantage. The famous “Daisy,” with a mushroom cloud as its backdrop, signalled that voters just couldn’t trust Barry Goldwater to keep the country safe. But since Johnson quit in ’68 due to anger over his handling of Vietnam; McGovern’s rout in ‘72; the humiliating final scenes from Saigon; Jimmy Carter’s inability to free U.S. hostages in Tehran; Bill Clinton’s draft dodging and non-dope smoking; and finally, John Kerry’s “for it before I was against” stance on the Iraq War their Republican opponents have more or less been able to caricature them as a party of the feckless.
Surprisingly, it’s been Obama who has changed this perception. Even in 2008, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain tried to take advantage of Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience, playing off voter fears of the Democratic stereotype. Though the attacks didn’t cost Obama the election, polls showed still showed that voters trusted the Republican Vietnam war hero McCain more than the Democrat’s one-term senator from Illinois.
Instead of weakness, however, the Obama administration has projected strength. On the campaign trail, crowds become electrified when the president or his surrogates mention the killing of Bin Laden. The president talks about ending the war in Afghanistan, and protecting veterans.
Romney, on the other hand, has fumbled. The past six weeks have seen a rocky overseas trip, followed by his failure to mention U.S. troops or the war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech. And although foreign policy hasn't been much of an issue in 2012 so far, the Obama campaign sees an opening to make it one. While still acknowledging that the election isn’t going to be decided by national security — the president and his campaign have gone all out to put doubts into the electorate about Romney’s ability to handle foreign affairs.
Privately, Obama allies will make case that Romney and Ryan possess an almost Palin-esque naivete to the world. Publicly, too: Senator John Kerry linked Romney’s comments on Russia as the number one geopolitical threat with Palin’s comment on seeing that country from Alaska. Romney appears “reckless” and “out of touch,” as one campaign official put it. All of this is laying the groundwork for what could be one of the most pivotal moments of the campaign—the final presidential debate, just two weeks before the election. The topic: foreign policy. Though Chicago is already lowering expectations for all the debates, they do feel the president has a clear leg up on this one. President Obama, officials say, can discuss the killing of Bin Laden, ending the war in Iraq, bringing troops home from Afghanistan, the toughest sanctions on Iran so far, and what the foreign policy community perceives as a successful intervention in Libya.
The Romney campaign, however, doesn’t think national security is a winning issue for Obama.
Romney foreign policy advisor Robert O’Brien called the Obama campaign's tactic a transparent ploy to distract from the sagging economy, including a recent jobs report that was "a disaster for them."
"It doesn't surprise me that they're raising foreign policy because it's another distraction from the Administration’s terrible economic record,” O’Brien told BuzzFeed. “They're going from one shiny object to the next."
O’Brien scoffed at the Obama campaign's claims of foreign policy strength, and pointed to what he sees as serious vulnerabilities. Obama’s "reset" with Russia has been a “failure” O’Brien said, and “his administration should be embarrassed by it.”
O'Brien conceded that the Bin Laden killing was great—“yes he gave the order and the Navy SEALs carried it out”—but said there was “not really another success story to point to.” And, he cautioned not to underestimate Romney’s foreign policy credentials.
“The Governor is an extraordinarily well-traveled businessman, he lived overseas as a young man, he speaks French, he understands the world and he's written extensively about foreign policy and national security,” he continued. “The idea that he's this naive guy at 65 years old, given his experience heading the Olympic Winter Games and everything else, I just don't think that's going to play."
Contact Michael Hastings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
Contact Zeke Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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