Mitt Romney just received an emphatic reminder that he’s not running against an ordinary candidate – he’s running against the president of the United States.
For a while, it was beginning to feel like the presumptive GOP nominee might be getting the better of Barack Obama in their tiff over the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.
After Obama authorized a campaign video that suggested Romney wouldn’t have given the go ahead for the mission that killed the al-Qaeda leader, Romney and an army of Republican leaders and commentators cranked up the righteous indignation, blasting Obama for politicizing what should have been a nationally unifying commemoration. When their outrage was amplified by neutral and even some decidedly non-Republican media voices, it seemed possible that Obama really had gone too far and that a backlash might be brewing.
And so it was that Romney decided to spend Tuesday, the exact anniversary of the bin Laden raid, with Rudy Giuliani, who a decade after 9/11 is still routinely referred to by the press as “America’s mayor.” The two men – bitter enemies until very recently – showed up at a New York City firehouse for a pizza delivery photo op, then took turns shaming Obama.
“I wish he wouldn't use it as a source of negative campaigning,” Giuliani said of the bin Laden raid. “I think that's a big mistake and I think he's mischaracterizing what Mitt Romney said.”
Romney, for his part, said: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together, which was the elimination of Osama bin Laden.”
But as the Mitt-and-Rudy show played out, word was spreading that Obama had quietly left the country and arrived in Afghanistan. The White House strenuously denied it at first, but by mid-afternoon stopped playing dumb and announced that the president would be delivering televised remarks from Bagram Airfield at 7:30 P.M. EST – the middle of the night, local time.
Obama used the speech to lay out his roadmap for the end of the war in Afghanistan. The official justification for his visit was that a Security Partnership Agreement with Hamid Karzai’s government had finally been hammered out and needed to be signed before a May 20 NATO summit in Chicago. It was also, in the White House’s telling, Obama desire to spend the bin Laden anniversary with American forces in Afghanistan.
His remarks had the immediate effect of making the dispute over his bin Laden ad seem petty and beside the point.
“My fellow Americans,” the president began, “we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.
“The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al-Qaeda.”
He went on to explain the agreement, which calls for a limited U.S. presence beyond the 2014 deadline to transfer security to the Afghan government – and specifically ruled out permanent American bases and troop patrols in cities or mountain regions. And he used bin Laden’s killing to argue that “the goal that I set to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild is now within our reach.”
It was a dramatic, eloquent speech on an emotional day, witnessed live by tens of millions of Americans who are ready to put the war in the rearview mirror. Whatever political benefit Romney reaped from his appearance with Giuliani – and from the past few days of wailing by the GOP – evaporated on the spot. Romney seemed to recognize it, too.
“I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan,” he said in a statement released after the speech. “Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our President about what is at stake in this war.”
Romney’s statement went on to condemn the Taliban and praise U.S. troops. There were no shots at Obama, and there was no mention of his “politicization” of bin Laden’s death. Obama had just delivered a signature presidential moment. As a mere candidate for office, that’s just not something Romney can compete with.