Charlie Neibergall / AP
Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Foreign policy wasn’t supposed to matter in this election.
Or at least that’s been the lesson of opinion polls, which for months have shown that voters rank the importance of foreign policy and military issues in this election behind education, immigration, energy, healthcare, and of course, jobs and the economy.
But Mitt Romney’s omission of the U.S. Armed Forces from his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last month — and his unapologetic defense of that omission last weekend — has opened a new front for Democrats to play offense in 2012 and reclaim strength on an issue Republicans have considered part of their political fiefdom for decades.
As a result, voters are being directly challenged to choose who would do the best job at the presidency’s only constitutional role: commander in chief.
Whoever occupies the Oval Office in 2013 will not only have to preside over an ongoing war in Afghanistan but face the challenges of quelling an increasingly nuclear Iran and calming an increasingly skittish Israel. There’s also defense budget cuts in Congress and cultural changes at the Defense Department.
Neither Romney nor President Barack Obama come to the job with military experience. In fact, it’s the first time since World War II that neither candidate for president is a veteran and the first time in almost 100 years that neither of the vice presidential picks has military experience either.
Romney has tried to paint himself as a champion of “a military that’s so strong, no nation would ever dare to test it,” as he told delegates at the RNC.
Obama, on the other hand, makes the case that he’s a civilian who has already earned his commander’s stripes through “leadership that has been tested and proven.”
“Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. We have. ... Al-Qaida is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead,” Obama said during his speech at the DNC, before turning to the troops Romney had left out of his.
“We are forever in debt to a generation whose sacrifice has made this country safer and more respected,” Obama said. “We will never forget you.”
Obama left to his deputies and surrogates the task of directly pillorying Romney for omitting even a reference to veterans in his acceptance speech.
By contrast, Vice President Joe Biden called “the incredible debt” owed to the nearly 6,500 fallen and nearly 50,000 wounded troops. He nearly broke into tears describing “the only truly, sacred obligation we have as a nation — to equip those we send to war and care for them when they come home.”
“No nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech,” Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said to the DNC. “They are on the front lines every day defending America, and they deserve our thanks.”
Romney has refused to apologize for the omission, pointing out that he has expressed his gratitude to the troops on several other occasions, including at an American Legion convention the day before he took the stage at the RNC.
“When you give a speech, you don’t give a laundry list,” Romney told Fox News’ Bret Baier in an interview last week. “You talk about the things you think are important.”
That statement shocked many Democratic delegates in Charlotte.
“As a Marine, his comment about the military not being important enough to speak about is hurtful,” said Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, a Nevada delegate and one of a group of veterans honored on stage at the Democratic National Convention for their service. Anderson spent four years in the Marine Corps and was in Afghanistan from late 2004 to mid-2005.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight. He made a laundry list of what was important, and vets didn’t make the cut,” Anderson said. “I don’t know Romney can call himself commander in chief when he sets his priorities like that.”
Romney also downplayed his RNC omission of the Afghanistan troops to Fox, saying: “I described in my speech my commitment to a strong military, unlike the president’s decision to cut our military. And I didn’t use the word troops, I used the word military; I think they refer to the same thing.”
Absolutely not, Nevada’s delegates said.
“They (Republicans) love the military. But they treat their soldiers and their G.I.’s, like — my terminology, excuse me — like toilet paper. When you’re finished with them, you just flush 'em away,” said Dick Collins, a Nevada delegate from Las Vegas, who served in the Air Force from 1964 to 1968, spending six months in Vietnam.
“My son, who is only in basic training, he signed a Special Forces contract: He’s going to be where there’s danger his entire career,” said Cynthia Trigg, a Nevada delegate from Douglas County. “(Romney) didn’t mention what he was going to do to help our veterans to help their families. ... We’ve had how many years of war without a break? The least he could have done is thank the troops for what they’ve already done, and that wasn’t even there.”
Nevada Republicans see all that focus and fear stemming from Romney’s speech as a desperate, orchestrated play by Democrats for votes.
“Clearly the Democrats are trying to make an effort to make gains among the military and veterans’ groups because candidly, they’ve run way behind in both of those categories over the years,” said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a Republican. “We’re not neglecting them (the troops). I can’t imagine that (Romney) intended what he said to be twisted around to mean that troops aren’t important. The Democrats would like to do that.”
“Clearly (Romney) appreciates and knows the military. ... I’m confident that they’re going to stick with us,” List said. “We understand the military, and we have a historical record that they can’t begin to match. But we certainly need to drive it home.”
Republicans have been doing just that, with the aid of many long military résumés that have recently come together to throw water on Obama’s performance on defense — especially when it comes to the bin Laden raid and the intelligence leaks that followed.
“Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden; America did,” Navy SEAL Ben Smith said in a mini-documentary by a political group called OpSec, which has strong Republican ties. With the help of former military and intelligence officials with strong Republican ties, the group recently produced a 22-minute takedown of Obama’s military achievements and policy.
“I believe that a 10-year-old would be able to understand that if you disclose how we got there, how we took down the building, what we did, how many people were there, that it’s going to hinder future operations and certainly hurt the success of those future operations for DOD, for the military, for the intelligence community and everybody as a whole,” said Scott Taylor, another Navy SEAL featured in the production.
Democrats are trotting out their own military surrogates, including famous ones, to make the case that Obama is not just the better choice for veterans but the better choice on military strategy.
“9/11 happened and we went into a war we didn’t need in Iraq. Barack Obama got us out of that war,” Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark said in an interview with the Sun. “He’s now taken us down in a reasonable, measured, correct way to get out of Afghanistan. ... He’s got the kind of strategic leadership we need for national security.
“With Romney, I get nothing but Cold War truisms … there’s no logic to that,” Clark said. “And on Afghanistan, he hasn’t articulated a clear policy.”
Indeed, both candidates likely will need such testimonials to win over veterans wary of trusting someone who hasn’t also served.
“Politicians will say anything to get elected or reelected … in times of conflict, the only people you can trust are your comrades-in-arms,” said Collins, who said he paid special attention to the speech Tammy Duckworth, a veteran who lost her legs and the use of an arm in Iraq, made about Obama. “I would say by someone like Tammy recommending Barack Obama for president to a veteran, I think it means a lot.”
“I’m a veteran, and it’s not a big deal to me,” said Michael Greedy, a delegate from Carson City, who was in the Air Force during Vietnam. “If you’ve been shot at, that doesn’t make you a better manager.”
But though Democrats are using Romney’s slip to trot out more military-minded surrogates to seize the moral high ground, it is not clear that the week’s events are any more than a distraction.
“President Obama has done quite a good job of neutralizing the ability of Republicans to criticize him,” said Peter Hanson, a political science professor from the University of Denver in Colorado. “But even though they have a natural advantage, it’s a hard one for them to exploit this year. Voters are just too interested in the economy.”