Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. 3: Why Hasn't Romney Weighed In on Obama's Afghanistan Plan?

Written by 2008 NEWSWEEK campaign blogger Andrew (Stumper) Romano, Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch is a weekly column that indulges our collective presidential-election fixation...even though the next presidential election is still, ahem, three years away.  


In the 36 or so hours since President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, there's been no shortage of Republican reactions—especially from Republicans who want to run for president in 2012.

Sarah Palin was the fastest draw. Writing on her Facebook page, the former Alaska governor and GOP vice-presidential nominee concluded that "as long as we're in to win, and as long as troop-level decisions are based on conditions on the ground and the advice of our military commanders, I support President Obama's decision"—even as she accused Obama of setting a "timetable for withdrawal that signals a lack of resolve. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was less equivocal, e-mailing supporters to say, "We owe [the president] our non-partisan support as he takes a clear stand and seeks to give our military the resources they need to push al-Qaeda back to hell." And at an event yesterday in Cincinnati, Newt Gingrinch had nothing but praise for Obama's decision. "He put the country ahead of the interests of his political allies and did what was right," Gingrich said, calling the 2011 drawdown date "a fig leaf to appease the left." "It's entirely reasonable to think that, in 2012, there will still be American troops in Afghanistan."

And yet, amid all the hubbub, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney—currently the closest thing to a GOP frontrunner, at least according to the Beltway buzz—was conspicuously mum. No quotes in the papers. No appearances on TV. No e-mails to supporters. No posts on his Web site. And no response—at least at press time—to a pair of phone calls and an e-mail message from yours truly. When a politician as experienced as Romney doesn't comment on a major news event for more than 36 hours, he's probably doing it on purpose. 

So why the silent treatment? It's not as if Romney hasn't weighed in on Obama's Afghanistan policy before. In fact, he's had plenty of scathing things to say about it. During a Nov. 2 appearance on CBS's Early Show, for example, Romney accused the president of neglecting Afghanistan as he campaigned for his fellow Democrats. "This Hamlet performance that we're seeing out of the White House is very, very disconcerting," Romney said. "The president has been president for nine months...He's had enough time to do 30 campaign trips around the country. Look, with men and women dying in U.S. uniform, the president ought to be focusing on getting them home, getting them home safely, and stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, rather than trying to reelect his friends." He repeated the diss at an event in Santa Barbara, Calif., two weeks later. "What has [Obama] been doing," Romney asked, "that is more important than protecting the lives of the troops of which he is commander in chief?" Never mind that Obama had already authorized two additional deployments to Afghanistan totalling 21,000 troops by that time, or that regardless of how long Obama deliberated, this latest deployment of 30,000 troops is set to start in January—the earliest date called for by his generals. Given Romney's obvious dissatisfaction with Obama's decision-making process—his home page still features three items from Nov. 19 or earlier knocking Obama's leadership on the issue—you'd think he'd have something to say about the decision now that it's been made. But so far, nothing.

This isn't the only time Romney has used silence strategically in recent months. When Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman challenged Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd congressional district earlier this year, a flock of ambitious national Republicans--Palin, Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty--swooped down and loudly endorsed Hoffman in a transparent attempt to rack up points with right wingers. Romney, on the other hand, was a deliberate "no show," later telling CNN that, like Ronald Reagan, he believes the GOP should maintain a "big tent" policy. "You don't build something by subtraction," Romney said. "So we welcome people who agree with us on most issues. Some will be very conservative on some issues. Some will be less so on others." As a result, when Hoffman lost to Democrat Bill Owens, Romney successfully burnished the new brand he's trying to create for himself as the "grown-up in the room": a solidly conservative but not irrationally ideological candidate, the thinking goes—the sort of guy the party can turn to when it forsakes the tantrumlike populism of the Palinistas and gets down to the hard business of nominating a potential president. That's why Romney has been quietly amassing political capital: he "attended nine events for senatorial candidates...more than a dozen rallies or fundraisers for those running for governor this year or next and...almost two-dozen meetings of Republican Party groups or conservative organizations" in the run-up to November's off-year elections--instead of appearing on Oprah.

But the problem with Romney's current silence on Afghanistan is that it diminishes rather than enhances the "adult" image he clearly hopes to convey. Since Obama took office in January, Romney has focused most of his fire on foreign affairs, taking the president to task on Iran and Israel as well as Afghanistan (in part, one imagines, because health care isn't a winner for him). He wants to seem Reaganesque, a brawny advocate for American exceptionalism. But you can't hope to maintain that image by suddenly ducking out at "the defining [foreign-policy] moment of the Obama presidency." It just looks wimpy.

I mean, I can guess what Romney is up to here. He's angling, as most politicians do, for maximum maneuverability: the freedom as 2012 approaches to say (a) "I told you so" if we "win" in Afghanistan or (b) "You should've done X" if we don't. But given that Romney was so critical of Obama for taking his time to plot a new course for the war-torn country, it's rather ironic that he can't bring himself to settle on something that seems vanishingly small in comparison: a response, positive or negative, to the president's actual policy.

"I think the party is looking for voices that lay out a positive...vision for the future of this country," Romney said last month. "If I can be part of that, so much the better." By all means, governor. But you have to speak up.