So I was in the midst of multi-tasking yesterday, keeping an ear cocked to the Republican presidential debate that was playing online, when I heard Mitt Romney say the most amazing thing. I had to roll back the transmission and listen again, just to make sure. I even watched his lips move, just to ensure that this wasn’t some sort of trick.
And sure enough, he did say it. Here’s the exchange with host Chris Matthews, with the highlights italicized.
Matthews: “Governor Romney…if you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities?”
Romney: “You sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do, but obviously, the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. The president did that as he was planning on moving into Iraq and received the authorization of Congress.”
Matthews: “Did he need it?”
Romney: “You know, we're going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn't need to do, but certainly what you want to do is to have the agreement of all the people in leadership of our government, as well as our friends around the world where those circumstances are available.”
Sit down with your attorneys…Go to the lawyers…It’s hard to imagine a Republican candidate committing a more egregious gaffe. After all, Republicans have long delighted in bashing lawyers, as rhetorical sport. They typically take a certain populist macho pride in distancing themselves from the effete hair-splitters (President Bush, umpteen times: “I’m not a lawyer”). Republican pollster Frank Luntz even insisted in a 1998 memo to GOP candidates that “it’s almost impossible to go too far when it comes to demonizing lawyers. Make the lawyer your villain.”
The typical Republican believes that legal niceties are for wimps, that you fight the global evil-doers and run roughshod over dithering congressmen not by sitting with your attorneys, but by channeling John Wayne….which is precisely why, if an ’08 Democratic candidate had ever dared to say what Romney just said, that Democrat would currently be under serious assault from the Fox/Rush/Drudge/Coulter/GOP message nexus.
Never mind the fact that, in a narrow technical sense, Romney was actually speaking the truth, since presidents of both parties do tend to check with legal counsel while weighing constitutional issues. In the shorthand of politics, nuance is the first casualty. One can only imagine how Republican admakers would have responded, in 2004, if John Kerry had spoken Romney’s identical phrases: “Once again, the Democrats have shown that they cannot be trusted to keep us safe. John Kerry thinks we should outsource the war on terror to the lawyers – ‘to let the lawyers sort it out,’ as he puts it. In a dangerous world, America cannot afford that kind of inaction…”
In fact, that’s what a lot of conservatives were saying in 2004 anyway; commentator Barbara Stock at the Renew America think tank mocked Kerry for his alleged belief that “a few lawyers will solve the pesky terrorist problem.” Meanwhile, Jed Babbin over at the National Review wrote that year, “If wars are too important to be trusted to the generals, they are far too important to be trusted to a bunch of lawyers.” (In that piece, he was complaining about how Bill Clinton had consulted with Pentagon lawyers before deciding whether to launch special-ops missions.)
Perhaps conservatives would at least be consistent if they now rebuked Romney for expressing a willingness to consult with lawyers during a national security crisis. Right?
With the exception of a few observers – Matt Hemingway at the National Review website fumed, “What a terrible answer on Mitt’s part…mind-boggingly awful” – most of the conservative commentariat has been predictably benign.
I repeatedly checked The Drudge Report, in the hours after the debate. It’s fair to suggest that if a Democratic candidate had talked about consulting with lawyers, the parsed quote would have been emblazoned in red on the home page. But Romney’s quote was nowhere to be found (last night, by contrast, there was a photo of Hillary in a witch costume).
The generally astute Matthew Continetti, at the Weekly Standard, did suggest that, while “none of the candidates had a bad debate,” Romney “came close when he said he would more or less cede command authority to his lawyers.” But he didn’t elaborate. And even though a blogger at redstate.com did argue this morning that Romney’s words “tells me all I need to know about his qualifications to be commander in chief. In fact, Romney's reply sounded much like what we would hear out of the mouths of liberal Democrats,” he immediately took heat from conservative posters who thought Romney’s words were no big deal.
But even though most conservatives seem to want to excuse one of their own, even for uttering words that they would have condemned from a Democrat, this doesn’t mean Romney will get off scot free. If any rival candidate sees Romney as an impediment and needs ammo to cut him down, the lawyer line might well be resurrected. The Fred Thompson campaign put out a brief mocking email last night, and an official Thompson blogger wondered last night, “Does the Iranian regime respond to subpoenas?”
And speaking of Fred Thompson, how did the GOP’s purported conservative savior perform yesterday, in his long-awaited debate debut? Some commentators seem to think that he did just swimmingly, just because he remained awake for two hours and managed to survive a Chris Matthews pop quiz by correctly naming the prime minister of Canada.
But suffice it to say that his lines were better on Law and Order. At one point, he let loose with this clearly scripted sound bite: “It’s strange to me to think that the average 20-year-old serving us in Iraq knows more about what it takes for our national security than the average 20-year veteran on Capitol Hill.” (I know it’s de rigueur these days to offer kudos to our troops, and that’s fine - but are we now supposed to believe that they are also endowed with big-picture geostrategic wisdom as well?) And at another point, he sounded like a foggy version of George W. Bush: “The manufacturing industry is, in large part, an international industry nowadays, which means prices are set internationally.”
On the other hand, any 65-year-old man who can stay vertical while listening to a discussion of the Smoot-Hawley tariff probably deserves at least a measure of applause.
And, with respect to Barack Obama's recent alleged insult to American flag pin wearers everywhere, history shall record that, yesterday, only two of the nine Republicans debaters wore flag pins.