Bin Laden looms over GOP's first presidential primary debate

When Republican presidential hopefuls gather in South Carolina for Thursday night’s debate, it will be the Middle East, and not the American Midwest, looming over the evening. 

The troubled economy that has hit the United States, and particularly the Midwest, so hard has been momentarily replaced by national jubilance as Osama bin Laden’s death is celebrated.

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And President Obama is getting credit for the successful mission, which could have turned into a Republican victory if it had failed.

As one potential 2012 candidate, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, told NBC: “If something had gone wrong … and there’d been a mistake, the president would be undergoing tremendous criticism.”

Most of that criticism would have come from the Republicans hoping to replace him.

It’s a talking point the presidential contenders have used repeatedly in the past few years, hitting the president hard when it comes to national-security issues.

One year after Obama had been in office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) wrote the most provocative words of any 2012 candidate on the president’s approach to terrorism: “In the Obama administration, protecting the rights of terrorists has been more important than protecting the lives of Americans.”

Suggesting that the president values terrorists’ lives more than Americans’ is incendiary in any context, but especially so after the commander in chief has given the order to slip into a country, uninvited, and kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.

To be sure, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been far less provocative, but even he has questioned the president’s priorities, telling Fox News last year that Obama was “more intent on having the people at the ACLU happy” than properly handling terrorists.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has also suggested the president sees some kind of moral equivalence between terrorism and, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

During the 2010 election, Obama directed withering criticism at the Chamber for its campaign spending, prompting Palin to tell a crowd: “The way the White House talks, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an international terrorist.”

And she has hit him on another common complaint from Obama’s rivals — that he’s been too passive in conducting the war on terror. Palin wrote on Facebook: “The real nature of the terrorist threat requires a commander in chief, not a constitutional law professor.”

Sunday night, however, that “constitutional law professor” seemed far away, and to bin Laden, the “commander in chief” was lethally near.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a confirmed participant in Thursday’s debate, told supporters that he was thinking of running for president because Obama “treats terrorism like a petty crime.” 

Yet Obama does not appear to have treated bin Laden as he would a car thief. In fact, he oversaw a careful process and waited to dispatch the troops at the right time.

While the president was dealing with the issue, secretly, this year, Gingrich was publicly slamming Obama for being the “spectator in chief” and filling out NCAA brackets while neglecting the threat of terrorism.

He wrote: “Obama picking basketball teams may come to rival Jimmy Carter scheduling the tennis courts in the White House as a symbol of failing at big stuff and trivializing the presidency.”

But now that the “spectator in chief’s” administration has done what the world couldn’t for 10 years, how likely is it that GOP candidates will be more guarded and careful in criticizing Obama’s foreign policy during Thursday’s debate?

“Not very,” says media critic Brendan Nyhan, co-author of The New York Times best-seller All the President’s Spin.

“These moments are fleeting; any approval bump Obama receives from bin Laden’s death will dissipate quickly. Their main concern should be the invisible primary — this is an opportunity to prove to GOP elites that they can be credible messengers on foreign policy.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, thinks Obama’s and the troops’ achievement will be something of a footnote at the debate.

“My guess is that the candidates will either say something nice in passing before launching anti-Obama broadsides, or just go straight to the broadsides,” Sabato said.

That’s because they’re not talking to the independents for whom bin Laden’s death might particularly resonate.

The candidates are instead, “seeking votes in the universe of Republican base activists, and you get votes generally by telling people what they want to hear. And the base is in no mood to nominate somebody who sounds soft on Obama,” Sabato said.

It remains to be seen whether the candidates will give credit where due in Thursday’s debate, or instead become “churlish,” as conservative strategist Karl Rove has urged them not to be.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. 


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