‘In the short term, it’s hands off the president,” says an adviser to a Republican presidential candidate, discussing the political atmosphere after the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden. “The country is feeling good about itself, really for the first time in years, and the president is the embodiment of that. Nobody wants to be the person who pops that balloon.”
Talks with aides and associates of several leading Republican candidates suggest they all believe the same thing: This is a time to step out of the way and let President Barack Obama take credit for killing bin Laden. The advisers expect the president’s poll numbers to rise. And then they expect those numbers to go back down, and the campaign to return to economic issues.
“There won’t be long-term effects,” said a member of another candidate’s circle. “In the end, Obama will get a short-term bump in the polls. This election is about jobs, houses, and cars — my job, my house, and gas for my car. In the end … it’s about the economy.”
Republicans throughout campaign-land are looking back hopefully toward 1991, when President George H.W. Bush was riding high after victory in the first Gulf War — only to be defeated by Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. “Remember in the Gulf War when Bush was at 90 percent approval rating?” said an adviser to a third candidate. “That tanked.”
“Historically, these things have sort of a short shelf life,” said an adviser to a fourth candidate. “This is not a day to distinguish between our policies and the president’s. There will be other days to do that.”
The Republican candidates and their campaign teams were as surprised as anyone by the news from Pakistan. In the hours after Obama announced the death of bin Laden, the candidates and their advisers scrambled to come up with statements that would strike the right tone, especially on the question of how much, if any, credit to give to Obama.
Tim Pawlenty’s statement was straightforward and gracious: “I want to congratulate America’s armed forces and President Obama for a job well done,” Pawlenty said. But that was only after praising former President George W. Bush for his promise that America “would bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”
Newt Gingrich commended “both President George W. Bush, who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years, and President Obama, who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Mitt Romney didn’t mention Obama by name, declaring bin Laden’s death “a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere” and congratulating “our intelligence community, our military and the president.”
Some candidates and potential candidates ignored Obama altogether. Sarah Palin celebrated “the hard work and dedication of [the] brave Americans who relentlessly hunted down our enemy.” Rick Santorum warned that “the threat from jihadism does not die with bin Laden.” Michele Bachmann expressed “my hope that this is the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism.” And Mike Huckabee, looking to make the biggest impact, said, “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”
Some in the GOP field will have to come up with more extensive comments soon. It just so happens that the news of bin Laden’s death comes a few days before the first Republican candidates’ debate, scheduled for Thursday in Greenville, S.C. Coverage of the debate will probably focus on who’s not there — Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann have chosen not to participate, and of course noncandidates Huckabee, Palin and Mitch Daniels won’t be there, either. But Pawlenty and a group of lower-tier candidates — Santorum, Herman Cain, Buddy Roemer — will appear, and each will undoubtedly be called on to comment on the death of bin Laden and the more general topic of the war on terror.
Expect caution, at least from some.
“You have to be very careful about how you handle the president,” said the first adviser. “His economic policies are still fair game, but anything that sounds personal is bad. He’s going to be riding a wave for some time.”
But for how long? Obama will certainly try to make the wave last as long as possible. But unemployment is still high, gas prices higher, and economic worries higher still. Republicans, temporarily eclipsed by the president’s success, are hoping that by next year Obama will be the new George H.W. Bush, and not the conquering hero of 2012.
Byron York, The Examiner’s chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer. com.