An unforeseen event is the test of a President — and an opportunity for a presidential candidate. But in responding to Pakistan opposition leader leader Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, some candidates and their operatives displayed more foot-in-mouth and sheer ambition than thoughtful, policy-making brain power.
To be sure, there were some thoughtful comments. But some flubbed, others used it as a chance to try and lash out at opponents and suggest they were somehow (even remotely) responsible for Pakistan’s turmoil and others showed a shoot-from-the-lip trait that might give more thoughtful voters pause.
What’s at stake? A poor choice of words can be (a) used against a candidate in debates, (b) used by late night comedians to make a candidate the subject of ridicule (and the late night talk shows will resume with fresh comedy writing next month), (c) be used by opponents as video in campaign ads, (d) be used in debates or held up for all and sundry by Tim Russert on Meet The Press. The ill-chosen words are like boomerangs.
In the case of the Democratic candidates, a seemingly-stunned Josh Marshall writes:
The leading Dem candidates for president appear to be in a pitched battle to make the most craven and insipid uses of the Bhutto assassination for immediate political advantage. A true horse race.
But the Foot In Mouth Award truly goes to Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who — already under fire from some GOPers for both lacking foreign policy experience and DARING to criticize President George Bush’s approach to foreign policy (i.e., The Lone Ranger) — gave his foes and balking voters a noose with which he could be politically hung.
Commenting on the Bhutto assassination, Republican Mike Huckabee said in Orlando today that the United States should be “trying to ascertain who’s behind it, and what impact does it have on whether or not there’s going to be martial law continued in Pakistan.”
Martial law was lifted about two weeks ago, leading some to wonder if Huckabee knew that. CNN reports on the incident and reaction to it under the headline “Critics jump on Huckabee Pakistan gaffe.” CBS News says it was “A minor slip, maybe, but not a subject he wants to mess up on when he is already considered weak in the area of foreign policy.”
Huckabee’s remark seems akin to the career-destroying remark of former President Gerald Ford who in a debate with Jimmy Carter declared: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” It’s a comment that could be exploited by his foes.
It’s not the mistake itself that will raise eyebrows — it’s Huckabee’s lack of intellectual ease, his lack of felicity, with foreign policy at a critical moment when everyone is paying attention.
Mitt Romney, for example, may have the same degree of experience, but he’s boned up and is much more comfortable answering complicated questions about foreign policy.
Smart politicians (and their staffs) would realize that any words they utter at a time like this could prove to enhance their images. Huckabee and his staff apparently forgot that — and the opening that he gave his critics. CNN reports:
Conservative critics immediately pointed out that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf lifted the country’s state of martial law roughly two weeks ago. The slip “ought to be really bad news for Huckabee,” said the National Review’s Jim Geraghty, writing on the magazine’s Web site. “…I’m not sure how big assassination-related news will play in the first primary states. Still, I think those misstatements will exacerbate the Huck/Not Huck divide in GOP circles.” The National Review has endorsed Huckabee’s Republican rival Mitt Romney.
UPDATE: In a statement Thursday night, the Huckabee campaign said: “Gov. Huckabee firmly believes that emergency rule/martial law in Pakistan, as a practical matter, should not be viewed as having been completely lifted until the restrictions imposed during that period on the press and judges are removed.
“Although General Musharraf let the pendulum swing a little more freely in the last few weeks, the overall policy, which is what the Governor was addressing in his comments, has been, and continues to be, repressive.”
The explanation above is as poor politics as Mitt Romney insisting he really didn’t MEAN to suggest he actually SAW his father march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It could cost Huckabee votes, not help him maintain what he has (but he is already ahead in most polls) or gain votes. Basically, he and his staff can’t admit he gave an inadequate answer. Most voters will see it as such and the parsing of words could stiffen conservative (and GOP establishment) opposition to him.
The New York Time’s Paul Krugman listened to the comments yesterday and had this to say:
To all the presidential campaigns trying to claim that the atrocity in Pakistan somehow proves that they have the right candidate — please stop.
This isn’t about you; in fact, as far as I can tell, it isn’t about America. It’s about the fact that Pakistan is a very messed-up place. This has very bad consequences for us, but it’s hard to see what, if anything, it says about US policy.
If you’re a tough guy (or gal) who believes in exerting US power — never mind, there are just too many heavily armed people in Pakistan for anyone but Norman Podhoretz to believe that we could throw our weight around. If you believe you can bring new understanding to the world through your enlightened outlook — sorry, there are too many people in Pakistan who don’t want to be enlightened. If you believe that we’d have more influence in the world if we hadn’t squandered our resources and good will in Iraq (which I do) — well, sorry, that influence wouldn’t extend to being able to bring peace and light to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Craven Statement Of The News Event Award belongs to a member of Democratic Senator Barack Obama’s staff. The Politico gives this comment by Obama advisor David Axelrod:
REPORTER: But looking ahead, does the assassination put on the front burner foreign policy credentials in the closing days?
AXELROD: Well, it puts on the table foreign policy judgment, and that’s a discussion we welcome. Barack Obama had the judgment to oppose the war in Iraq, and he warned at the time it would divert us from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, and now we see the effect of that. Al Qaeda’s resurgent, they’re a powerful force now in Pakistan, they may have been involved — we’ve been here, so I don’t know whether the news has been updated, but there’s a suspicion they may have been involved in this. I think his judgment was good. Sen. Clinton made a different judgment, so let’s have that discussion.
So somehow Clinton’s judgment on the war is tied in with the problems in Pakistan – a comment that will be viewed by many as transparent political opportunism and evasion of the MAIN policy question.
Obama better hope that many Democratic voters don’t react the way Tom Watson did to Axelrod’s innuendo:
I cannot imagine Karl Rove doing this. I cannot see Lee Atwater going down this road. Heck, even Roy Cohn wouldn’t go there. And yet there today was the top political adviser to Barack Obama pointing a finger for the tragic and truly horrific murder of Pakistani opposition leader, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at…steady yourself, Democrats…
Senator Hillary Clinton.
Look, I thought it was an Onion post. But I was sadly wrong
The Most Shrill Comment From A Supposed Thinker Award goes to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a candidate who always had great potential but has a huge TV problem (the TV cameras hate him) and seems to working hard on his doctorate for a PhD in verbal flubs. This was a big one:
Alone among the White House contenders, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called on President Bush to pressure Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to step aside in favor of a coalition government.
“Until this happens, we should suspend military aid to the Pakistani government,” he said in a statement. “Free and fair elections must also be held as soon as possible,” added Richardson, who served as ambassador to the United Nations for a portion of the Clinton administration.
Serious foreign policy thinkers might ask how the United States could suspend aid to a country so pivotal in the war on terrorism — a country that has nukes. And what would the consequences be if the United States did?
Republican Rep. Ron Paul criticized support for Musharraf but said the U.S. should not been supporting him in the first place.
John Edwards had a statesmanlike response: he said he talked with Musharraf by phone after the assassination and urged other candidates not to politicize it (which some see as a zinger aimed at the Obama camp).
The other candidates offered statements touting their experience (no problem) or raising questions about Pakistan security and other issues. See the link above and read Ed Morrissey for lots of details.
HERE’S A CROSS SECTION OF WEBLOG REACTION TO THE CANDIDATES’ COMMENTS (these are excerpts so click on links to read full posts):
–TMV favorite skippy (who writes in lower case and created the word “blogtopia”):
mike “the huckster” huckabee fumbled two points as well the image that he knows anything about foreign policy today in response to benazir bhutto’s assassination.
This has absolutely nothing to do with Phil Singer and the Clinton camp. This is about Mr. Axelrod’s desperate attempt to cover for what is now unfolding, which is every single pundit on cable is blathering about Senator Obama’s lack of experience at a moment of crisis. When you look at the video above it only drives the disconnect to Axelrod’s candidate home. Obama couldn’t look any more robotic at a time of crisis and completely disconnected to the event.
Regardless of how you feel about Clinton, the video above [the same one we linked to here at TMV] shows the exact opposite.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is likely to have far-reaching repercussions which cannot even be imagined right now. But the seeming rush of two Republican candidates (and Barack Obama) to try and hang the blame for the assassination of Bhutto on US policy is not merely a lie born of cheap opportunism; it is a lie that is damaging to our country’s interests and reputation across the world:
* Ron Paul’s take is, quite frankly, a disgrace
* Mike Huckabee APOLOGIZES??? (and also refers to martial law there which was lifted weeks ago)
* Barack Obama’s campaign manages to blame Hillary AND Bush (they would have been better off saying nothing…)
Do you not think that these irresponsible statements are bouncing around every Islamist website on the planet? And this is Presidential???
–Talk Left on Axelrod’s “blame game”:
Wow! I can not believe he said that. Beyond the fact that the problems of resources in Pakistan are not related to Iraq (indeed, the Bush Administration has given away resources that the Pakistanis diverted to issues other than fighting Al Qaida), where was Obama on funding of Iraq and Pakistan for his tenure in the Senate? What did He do? According to Axelrod, is Obama to blame for the Bhutto assassination too? Outrageous stuff from the Obama campaign.
While Rudy Giuliani is out there running yet more ads on which he climbs once again on top of the pile of 9/11 corpses and says that only he will kill enough Muslims to satisfy the bloodlust of the Republican base, and Hillary and Obama are playing “Mine’s bigger” on foreign policy, old Johnny the Tortoise is on the phone with Musharraf.