The Bhutto test

It's tacky to use tragedy for political gain, but it's fair to examine how both parties' presidential candidates responded to Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Fair, and pretty depressing.

By Joan Walsh

Published December 28, 2007 5:03PM (EST)

I tried to resist sizing up how Benazir Bhutto's assassination would affect the presidential primary campaign for at least a day, but in the last couple of hours, my discipline started to fail. Partly it eroded watching Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee stammer shamefully as they figured out what to say.

Romney looked like a robot, blaming "violent jihadism," with no flicker of intelligence in his eyes about the complexities of the forces that likely conspired to kill Bhutto. (Or as "Hardball's" Chris Matthews put it today, it sounded like "blah blah blah.") Huckabee still seemed to think Pakistan was under martial law, though it was lifted by Musharraf two weeks ago. Thompson had to grope around for words to describe how "the more loony" al-Qaida elements were driven to murder a secular woman leader (while the less loony were sending money to her campaign? Explain, Fred.) And on the day a woman died for democracy, Thompson was quoted by the Boston Globe insisting there's no way a woman will be our next president. "This year, it's a man, and next year, it's going to be a man,'' said Thompson. "I can see no one else who's qualified to be president of the United States." (Please, Jeri, please, can't you tie him to the bed until 2009?)

For the sinking Giuliani, predictably, it was 9/11 all over again, time to "redouble our efforts to win the Terrorists' War on Us." Sen. John McCain was the only Republican who was the least bit convincing that he understands the real global forces at play.

Among the Democrats, it was hard not to notice that the last post on Salon before Bhutto's death was Walter Shapiro depicting Joe Biden as Cassandra, in part for his wisdom about Pakistan. Biden is probably too far behind to benefit much from this, but you never know. Hillary Clinton made several statements about Bhutto's assassination, and warmed up to her topic over time, finally discussing a trip she made to visit Bhutto in Pakistan in 1995, when her daughter Chelsea met Bhutto's children. On MSNBC'S "Hardball," Pat Buchanan described Clinton's Bhutto remarks as "statesmanlike," high praise coming from Buchanan, whom we don't expect to find a gender-neutral adjective. Even Chris Matthews, who's been brutal to Clinton in the last two months, praised her handling of the tragedy and labeled remarks by Barack Obama, who's appeared to be Matthews' chosen candidate of late, flat and uninspiring.

John Edwards, meanwhile, told reporters he'd spoken to Musharraf himself and urged him to keep moving toward democracy. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the United States should cut off aid unless Musharraf steps aside and lets a coalition of democratic forces in Pakistan take over, which seems a little divorced from reality. Sen. Chris Dodd apparently agrees with me, telling Keith Olbermann tonight, "I can't think of a worse scenario at this particular point." Although President Bush is pushing Musharraf to hold elections as scheduled Jan. 8, Dodd said elections should be postponed at least partly so Bhutto's party can pick a new candidate.

The day's worst reaction came from Obama strategist David Axelrod, who upstaged his candidate's big foreign policy speech with follow-up remarks that seemed to suggest Clinton bears some responsibility for Bhutto's killing. The assassination will "call into issue ... who's made the right judgments," Axelrod told reporters. "Obviously, one of the reasons that Pakistan is in the distress that it's in is because al-Qaida is resurgent, has become more powerful within that country, and that's a consequence of us taking the eye off the ball and making the wrong judgment in going into Iraq. That's a serious difference between these candidates, and I'm sure that people will take that into consideration ... [Clinton] was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit was one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaida, who may have been players in this event today, so that's a judgment she'll have to defend," Axelrod said. Actually, it's a judgment John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd would all presumably also have to defend, since all of them joined Clinton to vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq in 2002.

Maybe Axelrod was the designated knee-capper here; maybe he was thrown off his game by the latest Iowa polls showing Clinton back on top (narrowly); either way, it seemed wrong to me. Of course, as Greg Sargent notes, Clinton surrogate Evan Bayh was also a little crass insisting Hillary is the only candidate tough enough to keep the GOP from depicting Democrats as weak in such times of global strife (but it should be noted, Bayh didn't single out any opponent, of either party, as even partially responsible for Bhutto's death.) We'll see how it all unfolds in the days to come.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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