To counterattack or not to counterattack, is one of the most vexing questions campaigns face. Democrats – with the dramatic exception of Bill Clinton and his War Room – have frequently taken the high road when attacked, and lost. The failures of Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 to respond to Republican assaults seem to justify more aggressive responses. But sometimes, silence is golden. Sometimes counterattacking simply publicizes the initial attack. Looking at last week’s great appeasement brouhaha, Barack Obama overreacted by counterattacking, and may have fallen into a White House trap.
George W. Bush clearly was being mischievous when, speaking to the Israeli Knesset, he quoted Senator William Borah’s tragically naïve and utterly self-involved exclamation at the start of World War II. Dismissing talk of negotiating with “terrorists and radicals” as a “foolish delusion” we have heard before, Bush said: “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history,” Bush proclaimed.
Obama condemned this “false political attack” and led a chorus of Democrats shocked that a president would politick on foreign soil. All innocence, the White House press secretary Dana Perino denied that the Knesset remark had anything to do with Obama: “I understand when you’re running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you. That is not always true. And it is not true in this case,” she said. This was White House speak for the old schoolyard taunt, “if the shoe fits, wear it.”
Presidential pronouncements from Israel about American-Israeli friendship rarely generate headlines. But all of a sudden, whether or not Obama had been accused of appeasement – and was an appeaser – dominated the news. As a result, Obama’s name became more linked than ever with the appeasement charge. This linkage is doubly problematic for Obama. Not only does the controversy broadcast the Republican charge that Obama is too soft, too left, too willing to negotiate away American honor. It also publicizes the broader question: having talked his way from obscurity to the precipice of the presidency so quickly, will the 46-year-old wunderkind be too enamored of his own skills, too swayed by his own silver tongue? By contrast, John McCain, the grizzled war veteran, looks sober, mature, reliable.
In fairness to Obama, he also has to prove that he is not a wimp. Especially after the “swiftboating” of John Kerry, Democrats are anxious for a return to the days of the Clinton counterpunchers – although it seems without a Clinton in charge. One of Bill Clinton’s great triangulating skills was playing off two political personae, as the populist and the progressive, as “Bubba” and the Yalie, or, as was often said “Saturday night Bill” and “Sunday morning Bill.” Obama has a harder task here. Having floated to the top so quickly as the saint of centrism, as a seeker of civility, Obama cannot emphasize the hand-to-hand political combat skills he must have picked up during his apprentice in Chicago politics. At the same time, if Republicans smell weakness, they will pounce.
Fortunately for Obama, McCain is encased in a similar pair of silk handcuffs. McCain also has built his reputation as the Republican rebel, as the party maverick always willing to cross lines, build bridges, promote civility. It is hard to make nice while brandishing a stiletto.
Moreover, while Obama took the White House bait and bristled defensively that he was not an appeaser, the White House trap did not help McCain as much as it could have. One of McCain’s great strengths is appearing to be the Republican most distant from Bush; embraces from an unpopular lameduck president are not what the party maverick needs. And, as in 1992, when another young, relatively unknown Democratic politician defeated an older, more experienced, former war hero, this election does not appear to be about foreign policy thus far – it is, as it was in the election wherein Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton unseated the incumbent President George H.W. Bush, “the economy, stupid.”