In the 2004 presidential debates, when the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, criticized the Patriot Act, Bush said Kerry was “for weakening it.” When Kerry called the Iraq war a mistake, Bush rebuked him: “That's not a message a commander-in-chief gives.” When Kerry challenged Bush’s war strategy, Bush accused him of lacking “resolve.” When Kerry opposed an $87 billion war appropriation bill because Republicans refused to pay for it by reducing Bush’s tax cuts, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney said Kerry and his running mate had “voted against supporting the troops.” When Kerry criticized Bush for going to war without U.N. support, Bush and Cheney said he “denigrates the contributions of these brave [allied] soldiers.”
In the eight years since then, Democrats haven’t learned how to beat Bush’s tactics. What they’ve learned instead is how to mimic them. “There were very important moments in the discussion about Libya,” Obama adviser David Plouffe told CNN last night. “Gov. Romney looked like someone playing politics, and I think the president looked like a resolute commander-in-chief.” On MSNBC, Obama strategist David Axelrod said the president “is aware every single moment that he’s responsible for the lives of the Americans he sends overseas. … He feels that intensely. So it is offensive, the suggestion that somehow he would play politics with this issue.” Today on Good Morning America, Vice President Biden added:
It became so clear to the American people how Gov. Romney and the campaign continue to try to politicize a tragedy. … The president was clear: We are going to get to the bottom of this. The whole world will know it. And I think when the president turned and looked at Gov. Romney and made that assertion, saying, basically, “Don’t question me on this, in terms of my caring,” I thought it was a powerful moment.
Powerful indeed. Rachel Maddow, who has written a whole book on war and its political exploitation, said Obama’s “strongest moment of the debate” was “when he called Mr. Romney offensive, when he was being incredibly serious and incredibly sober on the issue of national security.” CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted that the network’s dial group of undecided voters “went way up just in the strength of his response.”
Congratulations, liberals. You’ve learned Bush’s methods well. They’re great for winning elections. They’re just bad for governing wisely and holding presidents accountable. And now they’re yours.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: