How the president inadvertently gave the GOP candidate an opening
Mitt Romney doesn't have many punches to throw when it comes to foreign policy. His main critique of the White House is stylistic: Barack Obama hasn't defended American values, and his rhetorical modesty emboldens Washington's enemies. But last week may have given the Republican candidate an unexpected opening. If Romney really wants to paint the president into a corner tonight, here's what he should say: Obama still wants to close the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay.
How do we know that? And why should that be controversial? To answer the first question, it's because Obama told us so. Asked on the Daily Show last week whether his White House experience has changed what he said he believed about foreign policy four years ago, Obama said no -- and then went on to admit he had some unfinished business to do:
STEWART: This is a little game I call "Still? Or No?" So you're the president now. Before, when you ran, you had certain things that you thought -- I wonder if four years as president has in any way changed that. Okay, first one is, we don't have to trade our values and ideals for our security--
OBAMA: We don't--
STEWART: --do you still feel that way?
OBAMA: We don't. There are some things we haven't gotten done. I still want to close Guantanamo, we haven't been able to get that through Congress.
Despite being asked a broad question that could have gone in any direction -- from drone strikes to cybersurveillance to national service -- Obama proceeded, unbidden, to bring up the one campaign promise from 2008 that instantly raises the hackles of both the right and the left.
For Obama to mention Gitmo on national television 15 days before the election carries no obvious electoral benefit. Among progressives and civil-liberties voters, Obama's initial decision to shelve the Guantanamo issue represented a betrayal of the highest order. Dreaming publicly now about closing Gitmo after he didn't take the opportunity to do so in the first two years of his term -- when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress -- rips open an old wound that only depresses base enthusiasm rather than energize it. More than anything, the renewed commitment is a dark reminder of what the president didn't do when he had the chance.
Neither is it clear that the proposal will get much traction in the broader electorate. Americans support keeping the prison open for business at a rate of 70 percent.
So if bringing up Gitmo doesn't do anything for Obama on his left flank, and it doesn't net him any new supporters from the middle or the right, what was the point? I floated the question on Twitter before the segment aired, and speculation generally fell into two categories: 1) Obama wanted to make Congress look bad; and 2) Obama had no way to avoid talking about Guantanamo.
Now that the video's up, we know the second explanation doesn't hold water. It might have been one thing if Stewart had asked Obama point-blank about his intentions for the detention facility, but Obama had ample opportunity to take his answer in a different direction. As for Congress -- well, with an approval rating hovering in the teens, it doesn't need any help looking bad.
All of this presents Romney with free points. By hitting Obama on Guantanamo, the GOP candidate gets to rile the hawks and remind doves of their disaffection. It's not apparent what, if anything, Romney would do differently about Guantanamo were he president himself. But that's beside the point. In an arena where Obama enjoys a natural advantage based on his record, Gitmo is among of the president's few real vulnerabilities. Romney has nothing to lose by calling him out on it. And if it backfires, and debate moderator Bob Schieffer turns the Guantanamo question at Romney? Romney's powers of evasion have served him well enough before.
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