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Parties Assess Post-bin Laden Politics

Bill Clark/Roll Call

Elected officials and campaign operatives were careful Monday to avoid any suggestion that Osama bin Laden’s death would have political consequences.

It was clear, however, that the Obama administration’s successful hunting of the world’s top terrorist shifted the 2012 electoral landscape, giving the president and his party new credibility on a potent issue as violence rages across the Middle East. But it also became evident that the road to politicize bin Laden’s death is lined with peril.

Take it from Rick Wilson, the Florida-based Republican consultant who crafted the now-infamous 2002 ad that used bin Laden’s image to attack then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran.

“I think [Democrats] run a very great risk attempting to turn this into a political resource because it tempts the question in people’s minds: Are you now using the sacrifice that these men made as a prop? Are you now looking at the heroism and valor that these men showed as a political lever?” Wilson told Roll Call. Obama “has to be extraordinarily careful about it and extraordinarily smart about it in the coming weeks and months. I do not believe that the Democrats have the moral footing to run a counter ad to” the Cleland ad.

Whether either party has stronger moral footing remains to be seen, but Democratic consultants conceded that bin Laden’s death offered political opportunities and dangers alike.

“It will now become very difficult for Republicans to use this as a club to beat up Democrats. The answer for Democrats is now, ‘Who caught him? You want to talk about Osama bin Laden? Okay, who got him?’” said Democratic strategist Mark Nevins, adding that the issue could be used more aggressively as well.

“I would have thought it would have been difficult for Republicans to politicize 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, but they sure did it,” Nevins continued. “Clearly, it’s the sort of thing that can be done effectively because Republicans have done it for so long. But it can’t be done without some risk. For candidates willing to roll the dice and willing to go to a very risky place, strategically, it can be done.”

But there was little sign of playing politics Monday. Democratic incumbents and potential candidates trod lightly when asked about the political implications of bin Laden’s death at the hands of a team of Navy SEALs on Sunday. Some suggested such discussion was taboo, even in a town where politics often supersedes policy and campaigning never ends.

“I can’t say what the political consequences or advantages are. We rallied behind President Bush when 9/11 happened. I think America’s rallying behind President Obama now,” said former Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), an Air Force pilot who has flown missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. “But in these moments, we’re not conservatives or liberals — we’re Americans.”

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