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.”
And while Boccieri said that bin Laden’s death likely wouldn’t encourage him to run again following his 2010 loss, it wouldn’t exactly discourage him either.
“I think it was Richard Nixon who said, ‘You’re not finished until you quit.’ And I haven’t quit yet,” Boccieri said Monday. “Obviously, there is a different level of trust for military. ... I was one of three Members who served in Iraq and one of four to have served in Afghanistan.”
And to the extent that bin Laden re-injects national security into the political discussion, some Republicans see an opportunity as well.
Sen. Scott Brown, who is among the most vulnerable Republicans up in 2012, used the day after bin Laden’s death to remind voters of his military credentials in a unique way.
A lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, Brown said in a statement that he has requested permission to conduct this year’s annual Guard training in Afghanistan.
“Doing so will help me to better understand our ongoing mission in that country and provide me first-hand experience for my duties on the Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs committees,” he said.
The vast majority of consultants of both parties interviewed for this story, however, agreed that Democrats, if anyone, would benefit in the wake of bin Laden’s death, which comes nearly a decade after he planned the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil in history.
“More than anything, this removes any perception that the president is lacking in leadership,” Democratic consultant Nathan Daschle said. “This will also test the discipline of Republican leaders, especially those running for president. The competitive nature of politics is going to put pressure on them to minimize this moment or somehow try to shoehorn Republicans into the limelight. Either one would be so antithetical to the mood right now. ”
Bin Laden’s death also largely neutralizes a long-standing political advantage Republicans have enjoyed on national security issues.
“It makes it harder for Republicans to draw a contrast on security,” Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway said. “The bigger issue is the economy. If the security situation were getting bad, it would be a double negative, if you will. This sort of helps keep security on the back burner as a hot political issue.”
Indeed, Republican consultants said that any political benefit for Democrats will be minimal, especially in an election cycle that was probably going to be dominated by economic and fiscal issues anyway.
“He’ll get a solid boost off of this, as he should, but then it’s about what he does with it,” one Republican consultant said. “But it occurs too early to have a big impact either way on re-elect and we’re still headed toward an economic election. ... We’ll be back to budget debate within a week and GOP candidates will drive on economic issues.”
Further, GOP strategists predicted that Obama’s bump in the polls will fade relatively quickly and attention will soon shift to Democratic voters’ mounting displeasure with continued military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The next big question is whether Obama’s left-wing base will allow him to see the war on terror through,” another Republican strategist said. “You have to assume there will be massive inertia among Democrats to pack up and come home from every outpost in the Arab world.”
And already, there were signs that Democrats and their allies used Sunday’s news to bolster that case.
“Politically, it’s an extraordinarily unique opportunity,” said Robert Greenwald, president of Brave New Foundation, the California-based liberal group behind the campaign Rethink Afghanistan, which produces anti-war Web videos and related petitions.
“President Obama is about to announce Osama Bin Laden is dead. Click ‘like’ if you think it’s time to get the troops home,” reads a Facebook posting by Greenwald’s group that drew nearly 2,000 supporters within 12 hours after it was posted.
In the end, however, many political professionals called for a temporary cease-fire as the country celebrates the death of its most hated enemy.
“We should have a moment of national celebration,” said Wilson, not usually known for his bipartisan spirit. “Put the politics aside for five minutes guys — and when I say it, that means something. This is a really great national moment, and I wouldn’t begrudge that to any president, Republican or Democrat.”
Joshua Miller, David M. Drucker and Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.