When presidential campaigns hit crunch time, both sides reach for their most visceral arguments. For liberals, it’s the Supreme Court: Yes, Mondale-Dukakis-Gore-Kerry is bland and dissatisfying, but think of the court! For conservatives, it’s the people in the world who want to do America harm, and the longtime Republican conviction, going back at least to the early 1950s “Who Lost China?” debate, that those feeble Democrats won’t keep America safe.
The actual record is more complicated—hawkish Democratic presidents marched us into the Vietnam tragedy, while a Republican one, Ronald Reagan, transformed himself by 1986 into one of the doviest presidents of the 20th century. But the brands are hard-wired into both parties’ DNA, with some justification, and nearly every Republican politician at some point makes the charge.
But now, the killing of Osama bin Laden is changing this equation dramatically. Alleged Muslim Barack Obama did in two and a half years what Bush couldn’t do in seven and a half. It wasn’t just the result. The nature of the operation is still breathtaking, weeks later, and the risk Obama took, which he conveyed with masterful cool in his 60 Minutes interview, is mind-blowing (imagine if bin Laden hadn’t been there!). You can call the president who oversaw the operation many things, but weak isn’t one of them.
Watching some Republicans’ first stabs at responding to the event was both sad and hilarious. Some were gracious (even Dick Cheney), but the propaganda machine and its envoys cranked out the usual bluster. They tried the this-proves-that-torture-works argument, pinned to a slender reed involving a man named Abu Faraj al-Libi, but the known facts don’t support the contention that torture played a major role. Then Bush administration torture-policy architect John Yoo played against type by asserting that it was cowardly to kill bin Laden rather than taking him alive. Things finally reached self-parody when Andrew Card of the Bush White House (the one that declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq roughly 4,200 fatalities ago) snarked that Obama was pounding his chest too much.
Absurd. But Democrats need to avoid becoming cocky. Republicans will not give up their narrative of liberal weakness so easily. Over the coming weeks, the GOP is likely to strike back on three fronts.
First, Israel. Because of the recent entente between Fatah and Hamas, many in Congress are calling for cancellation of the $450 million in aid the U.S. is slated to give the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, the U.N. is scheduled to vote on Palestinian statehood in September. If the administration takes anything less than a hard line on either, conservatives will surely accuse the president of weakness. As a former Bush White House official put it to me last week: “You have to have a hand-in-glove relationship with the Israelis, and this administration doesn’t have that.”
Second, the Pentagon. The administration wants to slash defense spending less than its own deficit commission recommended, but Republicans will invariably pounce on any cuts. “I think there’s a very clear Republican line here,” says Elliott Abrams of the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We don’t have a fiscal crisis because of the defense budget.” Maybe not, but there’s a lot of waste in the half-trillion dollars spent every year across the Potomac, and Obama is going to have to stand his ground in calling for shared sacrifice.
Third, Afghanistan and other hotspots. The administration has shown no signs of wanting to wind down Afghanistan any more quickly because of bin Laden’s demise, but we can be sure the right will be on alert for any sign of wavering. And then there’s Libya. And Syria. And Egypt.
Of course a terrorist attack on U.S. soil would change everything in an instant. But for now, Obama is perched on a pedestal with a prize—a scalp—no Republican can wrest from his hands. “For years and years,” an administration official told me, “Democrats have wondered about how you look tough on national security. Turns out the way you look tough is by being good at it.”
Tomasky is a NEWSWEEK/Daily Beast special correspondent.