The presidential contest executed a rare turn into foreign policy this week, with a flurry of controversy around the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Having already made it clear that he would not be shy to claim this event as a personal and administration success story, the president and his team upped the ante with a web video (narrated by Bill Clinton, no less) that noted a 2007 remark by Mitt Romney dismissing any focus on the pursuit of bin Laden as a waste of time and money (Romney was at the time supporting the Bush administration’s “wider war on terror” policy and also responding to criticism from Democrats—including Obama—that the administration had diverted vital resources from Afghanistan in order to prosecute a failed war in Iraq). Romney and other Republicans reacted angrily to the ad, suggesting that Obama was “politicizing” the operation that killed Osama, and arguing that “even Jimmy Carter” would have given the order to proceed with it. After some shots back and forth, the president’s surprise trip to Afghanistan, and televised address on a new security pact with the Afghans, seem to have convinced Republicans they were simply drawing fresh attention to Obama’s top national security accomplishment, and so sought to change the subject.
The sudden activity on foreign policy also helped draw attention to an internal Romney campaign problem reflecting the presumptive nominee’s sensitive relations with social conservatives. A couple of weeks ago the campaign announced that Ric Grenell, a veteran foreign policy hand who had served with as a top aide to former U.N. ambassador John Bolton during the Bush administration, would be Romney’s principal spokesman on international issues. More importantly in terms of symbolism, Grenell is openly gay and has publicly advocated legalization of same-sex marriages.
The hiring announcement immediately drew fire from prominent Christian Right figures, and Grenell vanished from sight, which was widely noticed thanks to this week’s back-and-forth on the Osama anniversary. Yesterday Grenell let it be known through Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, who is very close to the Romney campaign, that he had resigned because of the heat and the apparent unwillingness of the campaign to defend him. The campaign subsequently defended itself on grounds that Grenell’s employment wasn’t even effective until May 1, and dropped broad hints that he was grandstanding to advance his own “gay politics” agenda. The whole brouhaha was an unhelpful distraction for Team Romney.
More generally, the polls seem to be settling into a stable picture of a very close general election, though Obama continues to hold a narrow lead in almost all the key battleground states, including such must-win GOP states as Virginia and North Carolina. The most promising sign for Republicans is the continuing evidence that the economy may be slowing down again; the next monthly “jobs report” from the BLS, due out tomorrow, could assume an outsized significance, particularly given the political science rule of thumb that perceptions of a president’s economic performance tend to become “locked in” months before Election Day. Another rough benchmark is Nate Silver’s estimate that the economy needs to add about 150,000 jobs a month to put Obama in a reasonably solid position for re-election.
The downballot contest receiving most attention at present is next Tuesday’s Indiana primary, in which it appears increasingly likely that six-term incumbent Republican Sen. Dick Lugar will lose to conservative state treasurer Richard Mourdock. Aside from a deteriorating position in the polls, the abrupt withdrawal from the battle by a Super-PAC backing Lugar was widely interpreted as a sign he’s a lost cause. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Mourdock last week—her first endorsement of the 2012 cycle—also looked like a pile-on against a doomed incumbent who thumbed his nose at the Tea Party Movement once too often. Given Indiana’s current political complexion, Mourdock would be favored in November, but Democratic nominee Rep. Joe Donnelly should be quite competitive.
Another key Senate race took a very strange turn this week as the Democratic challenger to Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, was thrown off balance by Brown campaign and conservative media reports that she had listed herself as a Native American in professional directories over the years, and that Harvard Law School had once defended itself from lack-of-faculty-diversity charges by pointing to Warren as a Native American. Warren is 1/32 Cherokee. Though there is no evidence so far that Warren ever benefited from this minority self-identification (she is generally regarded as one of the country’s leading experts on bankruptcy law), the charge has undermined her signature reputation for integrity, and has also exposed her to popular resentment of affirmative action programs. Upcoming polls will be watched closely for signs of damage to Warren; the race has been very close so far, but the strong likelihood of a big Obama win in the state was generally thought to have given her an advantage. If the brouhaha proves to be exceptionally damaging, it’s worth noting the Democratic primary is not until September, and there is a long list of other Democrats who demurred from running or withdrew in her favor who might become available.
Photo Credit: League of Women Voters of California