Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Proceed With Caution

Walter Russell Mead says yesterday was a bad one for the Obama Administration and posits on the promise and peril its events provide for the Romney campaign in a post called The Day The Roof Fell In:

The politics of this are at one level quite tricky for Republicans. It is not as if there was some magically effective Middle Eastern policy that the Obama administration is obstinately refusing to employ. Many American voters are likely to support whichever candidate they think will be less likely to get the country more deeply embroiled in the Middle East. “Apology tours” are unpopular, but after eleven years of unsatisfactory results, so are wars. Denouncing President Obama for insufficient hawkishness will stir some people up, but it may quietly reinforce the determination of many others to keep executive power out of the hands of a party which looks to be just a little bit too quick on the draw.

The order and competence dimension of a presidential election should not be underestimated. Voters generally don’t want presidents who drive the U.S. government like it was a Ferrari. They want a comfortable, safe ride; their kids are in the back seat of the car. Yesterday’s events damage President Obama because they call into question the story the campaign wants to tell—that President Obama is a calm and laid-back, though ultimately decisive person who brings order to a dangerous world and can be trusted with the car keys. But if Republicans respond by looking wild eyed and excitable (remember John McCain’s response to the financial crisis in 2008?), bad times will actually rally people to stick with the devil they know.

Yesterday rocked President Obama’s world and gave Governor Romney’s campaign some new openings. But one day in a long campaign is just one day. We still don’t know how these events will reverberate across the Middle East or how the U.S. response will develop. In some ways, trouble overseas distracts attention from the White House’s current domestic problems—the Woodward book and the Chicago strike. And the President can thank his stars that the German Constitutional Court decided not to plunge the world economy into crisis this morning and allowed the German government to complete the ratification of the most recent European bailout agreements.

As the dust settles, there will be more to say — about the politics of Egypt, the chaos in Libya, the President’s leadership, the strike in Chicago, the nature of blasphemy, the pitfalls of public diplomacy in the age of social media, the Israeli-Iranian confrontation and the state of the campaign. And there will be time to remind readers again about the courage and patriotism of so many American diplomats around the world like Christopher Stevens, the ambassador we are mourning today. But yesterday’s events should remind us that all the models and all the “laws” of politics that political scientists labor to uncover are really just rules of thumb and probability calculations. Presidential elections are driven by events as well as by “forces”, and many of the most important events are inherently unpredictable until, quite suddenly, they occur.

There certainly seems to be an opportunity for Romney here with the void in leadership from the White House in the face of these events. Of the two, the strike in Chicago is one that he should more easily be able to turn to his advantage. The situations in the Middle East-Libya/Egypt/Israel/Iran/etc.-are far more complicated and many previous presidents (and those who have aspired to the position) have been burned when seeking to play with those fires. Romney’s approach needs to be strong and steady, but also slow. Only fools rush in.