The Water’s Edge

Arthur Vandenberg was a Republican U.S. Senator from Michigan from 1928 – 1951 and a man who believed passionately in a bipartisan foreign policy. Vandenberg might have been president. He tried for the nomination a couple of times, but his real niche was foreign policy and under his cautious and conservative hand the country came to a policy that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg’s approach to foreign policy evolved over time, which is another way of saying he changed his mind. He went from a staunch isolationist in the 1930′s to helping Harry Truman get Congressional approval for the Marshall Plan and NATO in the 1940′s. Yes, you read that right – a Republican senator helping a Democratic president on something really important. Once upon a time that kind of thing really did happen.

Here’s a guess that the political news for the next several days will be all about the Middle East, the tragic deaths of American diplomatic personnel in Libya and the deepening tensions around Iran. In other words, the presidential campaign just went off message in a major way and in a manner that neither campaign can hope to control. The only thing the candidates, and particularly challenger Mitt Romney, can do is talk about the issues.

Romney has spent most of today cleaning up after a statement he issued too quickly and without all the facts as the awful events in Libya were spinning out of control late yesterday.  His midnight statement condemning the Obama Administration is being widely regarded as an amazing piece of amateur hour time for someone who hopes to be Commander-in-Chief.

Ronald Reagan’s gifted speechwriter Peggy Noonan said Romney wasn’t doing himself any favors with his hair trigger attack.

“I was thinking as he spoke,” Noonan told Politico, “I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you’re always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically.” Exactly.

Romney’s campaign will now be compared to John McCain’s four years when the Arizona Senator – remember the suspension of his campaign during the banking crisis – as a man who displays questionable judgment in the heat of the moment.

The hawkish editorial page of the Washington Post, which has often been critical of Obama,  has it about right:

“As for Mr. Romney, he would do well to consider the example of Republican former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who issued a statement Wednesday lamenting ‘the tragic loss of life at our consulate,’ praising [Ambassador Chris] Stevens as ‘a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat’ and offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ to ‘all the loved ones of the fallen.’ That was the appropriate response.”

As the Senate Historian has written about a Republican from a different age:  ”When [Sen. Arthur] Vandenberg spoke, the Senate Chamber filled with senators and reporters, eager to hear what he had to say. His words swayed votes and won national and international respect for his nonpartisan, consensus-building, statesmanlike approach to foreign policy.”

The Senate voted in 2004 to place Vandenberg’s portrait in the lovely Senate Reception Room, a place reserved for the images of the greatest of the greats who once served the country.

Give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe Barack Obama is mishandling our foreign policy and is profoundly troubled by the President’s leadership. Fair enough. But with diplomats dead in a troubled land and the Arab Street holding the potential for even more turmoil, smart policy and smart politics would have been to simply say: “America has one president at a time and there will be time enough to sort out the politics.”

Simple rule of politics: When a campaign is transparently seen as trying to score political points – it doesn’t.

 

 

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