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Why Mitt Might Lose (Hint: It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!)

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Romney’s Willful Failure to Address Libya May Have Doomed His Chances

 

Libya remains the most important uncontested issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, and that spells trouble for Mitt Romney.

“Out of these characteristics [of the conflict] a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”

– Carl von Clausweitz, On War

I don’t want Mitt Romney to lose this election, but if he does, here’s why he’ll have lost it: He never read Clausewitz.

Pace Team Romney, the center of gravity in this campaign is not the economy; it’s leadership — or the lack thereof. Yet, Romney has foolishly adopted James Carville’s mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid” as his own, and thus forfeited any and all opportunities to attack Obama over the Benghazi fiasco and cover-up.

But make no mistake: what Obama did and did not do in Benghazi is emblematic of his entire presidency.

There was the lack of understanding of the problem, a failure to comprehend the threat; the dithering and delay and manifest failures of leadership — nay, the complete lack of leadership! And then the willful denial of reality in the face of all evidence, and the assertion of the primacy of domestic political concerns above all else.

It’s a story we’ve seen play out in this administration time and time again.

Obama’s Record of Failure. The Iranian dissidents? Ignore them. Our allies? Screw them. Our enemies? Appease them. Fracking? Kill it. Coal? Kill it. The Iranian nuclear threat? Play with it.

The budget? Drive over the fiscal cliff. The Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission? Forget it. Iraq? Also forget it. Afghanistan? Get out of it. Taxes? Raise them. Medicare? Raid it. Entitlement reform? Dismiss it.

And all the while: deny, deny and deny.

It is Obama’s determined refusal to lead, and to address the nation’s very real and serious problems, that makes him an unworthy chief executive officer and commander in chief. And that is why Romney should have devoted his entire campaign to undermining Obama’s pretensions to leadership — from the budget to Benghazi, and from the fiscal cliff to the foreign policy ledger.

But unfortunately, Romney hasn’t done that. He’s largely ignored foreign policy and has completely ignored Libya. He’s thus forfeited the opportunity to make a deeper, broader and more compelling indictment of Obama.

This has been a huge political mistake. It’s not that the American people care deeply about foreign policy per se (though they care more about it than the polls and the pundits suggest). It’s that foreign policy fluency and commitment in a presidential candidate is a proxy for competence and leadership, which voters very much do care about.

Yet, Romney has been campaigning as if the only thing of concern to the American people are jobs and material wellbeing. These are important, to be sure; but economic issues are not as politically determinative and as electorally decisive as Romney seems to think.

The economy, after all, is still growing (albeit anemically); and people can collect unemployment for almost two years (99 weeks). Surely, this helps to explain why so Americans have dropped out of the labor market. In any case, American economic misery and deprivation are not all that severe.

Moreover, since its founding in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, the Republican Party has been concerned with much more than economics. It’s been animated by larger-scale issues and concerns: liberty and opportunity, emancipation from the state, freedom from crushing regulation, victory in our nation’s wars, and cultural integrity and restoration at home.

The GOP’s Lost History. Lincoln, for instance, freed the slaves and restored the Union. Theodore Roosevelt championed the “manly virtues” and a robust U.S. foreign policy. Calvin Coolidge gave U.S. citizenship to American Indians and pushed for anti-lynching legislation. Dwight Eisenhower used covert forces to support liberty abroad and overt forces to protect liberty at home (Little Rock, 1957).

Richard Nixon won in 1968 because he promised to restore law and order at home and peace and honor in Vietnam. And of course, Ronald Reagan won in 1980 in part because of the economy, yes; but equally important was his commitment to defending America against Soviet and Iranian-Islamist aggression. Reagan also inspired millions of socially conservative Democrats through his commitment to life and religious liberty.

His vice president, George H.W. Bush, won Reagan’s third term by running as a cultural conservative who would be no less steadfast in his defense of traditional American values. And Bush’s son, George W., won election in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative” who would harness the power of the state for conservative ends.

Bush was reelected in 2004 because he was perceived as a more resolute commander in chief, and also because culturally conservative voters (in Ohio especially) were motivated by his commitment to defend the institution of marriage from radical legislative and judicial assault.

My point is that economics has never been enough for the Grand Old Party and its supporters; that’s not how we win elections. We Republicans win elections when we successfully weave economic issues into a more elevated program of national renewal and achievement.

That’s why taking Obama to task for his manifest failures of foreign policy leadership is so important politically: Because it confirms for voters that the problem is not simply that Obama was dealt a bad economic hand. The problem is that, whatever hand he’s been dealt, Obama, more often than not, has played it very badly. Simply put, he has failed as a leader.

Yet, Romney never says that.

Sure, Obama agreed to let the Seals take out bin Laden. But the effort to take out bin Laden was a long-standing initiative that began in the Bush administration; it was not a new initiative begun by Obama.

Libya was a new and worthwhile Obama initiative; but as the Benghazi fiasco shows, Libya has failed due to presidential neglect and dereliction of duty. Romney needed to say this, but he hasn’t.

And now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we have the spectacle of Obama, with Chris Christie’s fawning assistance, pretending to be a leader. Obama recognizes what Romney does not: We Americans elect leaders, not treasury secretaries. And so, leadership, not economic prowess or understanding, is what moves voters.

Strategic Mistakes. Romney may still win this election, and I certainly hope that he does. It may be that whatever strategic mistakes Romney has made have been dwarfed by Obama’s own. But even in victory, no Republican should think that Romney has run a wise or model political campaign, because he hasn’t.

Oh, Romney’s done some things well. His first debate performance was arguably the greatest presidential debate performance that we have ever seen. Romney successfully undermined Obama’s pretensions to leadership.

But ever since that first debate, Romney hasn’t been playing to win; he’s been playing not to lose, and it shows. His momentum has slowed and the race has froze. Romney dropped a winning strategy because he failed to grasp Obama’s center of gravity upon which this election will be decided — not the economy, but leadership.

We’ll find out Tuesday if Romney’s mistake, motivated by extreme and misguided caution, has cost him the presidency. I hope not.

 

Cross-posted from ResCon1