What is disheartening is seeing how the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is swallowed up into the political campaign as just another issue to try to score political points. As Andrew Romano covers the candidates' reactions yesterday to the assassination, there is something distinctly unappealing at seeing the candidates try to shake some political advantage from the threatening chaos in Pakistan.
"Bad for Bhutto. Good for me."Several pundits said that the assassination would wake the electorate up to the importance of foreign policy and the continuing war against Islamic radicalism. Such concerns would presumably benefit those candidates who can plausibly argue that they have some foreign policy experience. John Podhoretz wrote that this would wake us up from our attempts to take a renewed "holiday from history."
If there's one line that sums up how yesterday's assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is "playing" in the U.S. presidential race, that's it. Despite warnings from Hillary Clinton spokesman Jay Carson ("No one should be politicizing this situation") and Barack Obama himself ("It’s important for us to not look at this in terms of short-term political points scoring"), pretty much every campaign started spinning this geopolitical tragedy as proof of why he or she is best qualified to lead in a time of terror the second it hit the wires. Meaning pundits immediately started spouting off about who "wins"--or "benefits" or "stands to gain"--and who "loses."
One word: ugh.
The past three months have seen an odd turn in the presidential primary process in both parties — a turn away from the key issues confronting the United States and toward emotional and social vapor. The success of the surge in Iraq, coupled with the bizarre “we’re safe” reading of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, drained some of the passion from the anti-war fervor in the Democratic primary electorate and from the hawkish fervor of the Republican primary electorate. In their place came the Christian identity-politics rise of Mike Huckabee on the Republican side and the “we need a nice new politics” rise of Barack Obama on the Democratic side. Republicans squabbled about sanctuary cities and sanctuary mansions. Democrats squabbled about how many uninsured there would be left if their various health-care plans were imposed on the country.I'm not so sanguine that how the candidates respond to the threat of Islamofascism will determine who will be the next president. He may well be right that it will demonstrate who is fit for the presidency, but that doesn't necessarily translate into who will win the election.
The horrifying assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan this morning comes only one week before the Iowa caucuses and 12 days before New Hampshire. It is a sobering and frightening reminder of the challenges and threats and dangers posed to the United States by radical Islam, the nature of the struggle being waged against the effort to extend democratic freedoms in the Muslim world, and the awful possibility of a nuclear Pakistan overrun by Islamofascists. This is what the next president will be compelled by circumstance to spend a plurality of his or her time on. This is what really matters, not the cross Mike Huckabee lit up behind his head in his Christmas ad.
American politics would dearly love to take a holiday from history, just as it did in the 1990s. But our enemies are not going to allow us to do so. The murder of Bhutto moves foreign policy, the war on terror, and the threat of Islamofascism back into the center of the 2008 campaign. How candidates respond to it, and issues like it that will come up in the next 10 months, will determine whether they are fit for the presidency.
I would like to think that the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will take a more serious look at which candidate is most fit for leading the country against the threat of terrorism. But if Iowans didn't realize that we face a difficult world full of people who find it easier to resort to bombs and bullets than ballots to obtain power then they're probably not going to suddenly wake up and smack their foreheads in dismay over Mike Huckabee's several gaffes (more here and here; the guy really does seem clueless sometimes) since the assassination or Obama's lack of experience. As Andrew Romano writes,
But I can't help thinking that all the spin and punditry is sort of pointless, too. In the end, we rely on our gut to pick a president--not the headlines. For the folks who've already chosen, Bhutto's assassination will only confirm whatever conviction led to that conclusion; if you think Obama was right on Iraq, for example, you'll probably give him the benefit of the doubt on Pakistan. And to assume that Bhutto's slaying will sway the folks who still aren't sure is to assume that, until now, they'd forgotten that the world is a dangerous place. There was terrorism yesterday, there's terrorism today and there will be terrorism tomorrow--especially overseas. To treat Americans as if they don't know that--and to imagine that shouting "danger!" will determine their votes--is pretty condescending.