Tarred and Feathered

Vice President Joe Biden's confident speech today painted Mitt Romney as both George W. Bush and Michael Dukakis when it comes to foreign policy.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the two most important truisms about the politics of American foreign policy right now are: 1) Americans are pretty happy with Barack Obama’s foreign-policy performance, and 2) they think George W. Bush was a foreign-policy disaster.

If you don’t believe me, I present to you Vice President Joe Biden’s major foreign-policy speech on Thursday, April 26, at New York University — a combination of both the Obama administration’s greatest hits and dark warnings that a Mitt Romney presidency would represent a return to the "failed policies" of the not-too-distant past, i.e., the Bush years.

Declaring that Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive, Biden aggressively defended the Obama administration’s stewardship of the country’s global interests. In key respects, it’s hard to argue with Biden’s mantra: The troops are out of Iraq, and they are starting to come home from Afghanistan; bin Laden is in fact dead, and America hasn’t been hit by a major terrorist attack during Obama’s presidency; and the country’s alliances are in better shape, and relations with key allies have seemingly improved.

While some would no doubt quibble with Biden’s taking credit for closing down foreign prisons and ending torture (while ignoring Guantánamo Bay and the administration’s repeated executive power grabs) or boasting about Obama’s development agenda, which has been anything but robust, the big themes of Biden’s speech are compelling. More importantly, they are ones that have broad public support — as indicated by Obama’s sterling poll numbers on foreign policy and national security. This wasn’t the usual Democratic fare of foreign-policy defensiveness and awkward chest-thumping (though there was a little of that). Instead, Biden’s remarks represent perhaps the most confident and — from the perspective of recent history — counterintuitive foreign-policy speech given by a Democratic ticket since, well, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But it was the flip side of the vice president’s argument that was perhaps most telling — and indicative of how dramatically the foreign-policy terrain has shifted in just the past four years. Biden attacked the presumptive Republican nominee, Romney, for his inconsistency, recklessness, and occasionally contradictory statements on foreign policy. He hit him for opposing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and for his description of Russia as America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe. He attacked him for his lack of foreign-policy experience (even dredging out a 2007 quote in which Romney said that a president needn’t be "a foreign-policy expert" and could outsource that responsibility to the State Department). But the real crux of Biden’s broad assault was the notion — repeated over and over again — that a vote for Romney would represent a return to the Bush years. Said Biden, in one of the speech’s more quotable, albeit hackneyed phrases, "to the extent he’s [Romney] shown any foreign-policy vision, it’s through the glass of a rearview mirror."

According to Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster who served in Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, Republicans, in general, still maintain a reasonably positive foreign-policy profile — and Democrats have yet to make the case that they are the better party on national security. The Bush years are seen as something of an outlier to the usual legacy of GOP competence on national security, just as Obama is viewed as an outlier from the Democrats’ legacy of fecklessness. From that perspective, it wasn’t hard to figure out Biden’s objective — to turn the Bush and Obama exceptions into a new political rule.

"They want to hang Bush’s legacy around Romney’s neck and ensure that Americans associate the GOP brand on foreign policy with Bush," said Rosner. "Given the current president’s success regarding bin Laden and his predecessor’s failure regarding Iraq, the contrast they are trying to frame can be summarized in six letters — OBL versus WMD."

Indeed, Biden aggressively played the OBL toughness card, including making the rather suggestive declaration that Obama carries a big stick. He also said that the president has a backbone like a ramrod (two comments that are sure to send Freudians scurrying for cover). But above all, Biden basically argued that if Romney had been president during the past three years, bin Laden would still be alive. In effect, Biden was implicitly comparing Romney to another former Massachusetts governor — Michael Dukakis.

From the safe political ground of "keeping our fellow citizens safe and our nation secure" Biden offered a strong defense of the Obama record of diplomacy and multilateral engagement. Republicans have criticized Obama for trying to negotiate with Iran. Biden not only defended this approach but accused Romney of "loose talk" about war with Iran that risked undermining ongoing negotiations with Tehran to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. "This kind of Romney-talk" said Biden, in a phrase that political watchers may have to get used to, "is just not smart." It’s almost as if the Obama camp is trying to bait Romney into attacking it on Iran.

With the glaring exception of a particularly obsequious section of the speech defending the Obama administration’s handling of the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship, Biden was tellingly undefensive about the particular issues on which Romney has accused the White House of not being resolute enough.

What gave Biden the political opening to so forcefully defend the Obama record is that the contrast is, of course, the Bush record. If you don’t like Obama’s liberal internationalist foreign policy, Biden appeared to be suggesting, don’t forget what the alternative is. The challenge for Romney will be to contrast his foreign-policy views with those of Obama, while at the same time avoiding being tarred with Bush’s legacy. How he does that is decidedly unclear, since the most logical place for a Republican to attack a Democratic incumbent is from the right — and as Biden’s speech demonstrated, that’s precisely the political ground where the Obama campaign believes he is most vulnerable.

In the end, this was perhaps the most striking element of Biden’s speech — Obama’s reelection campaign wants — needs — a fight on foreign policy. And if Thursday’s speech was any indication, it will be a fight unlike any other we’ve seen in quite some time.

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