When I was a kid, my mom always insisted I look both ways before crossing the road. This often seemed silly because downtown Frederick, Md. is full of one-way streets, meaning that unless someone was illegally going the wrong way, that extra look was superfluous.
“You’ll be right,” she said, “but you’ll be dead.” (I still look both ways.)
Being right, I have learned, is often irrelevant — and sometimes dangerous. This lesson comes to mind as conservatives (and liberals) note that Mitt Romney was right about Russia being the greatest ”geopolitical threat” to America.
This is a revelation. During the final 2012 presidential debate, Obama mocked Romney, saying:
“I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Romney has been exonerated, but that didn’t stop Obama from winning the exchange — or the election (not to say the election hinged on Russia, though this exchange may serve as a microcosm for how the campaign played out).
Dave Weigel has some good insight as to how Obama managed to win the exchange, despite being substantively wrong:
“Romney was right. Why was Obama wrong? Because, I think, he was willfully blurring the distinction between “geopolitical” and other sorts of threats. He was playing to the cheap seats. Voters do not fear Russia, or particularly care about its movements in its sad, cold sphere of influence. They do care a lot about terrorism. And Obama would use any chance he had, in 2012, to remind voters that he was president when Osama Bin Laden was killed.
“So you see the politics—they reveal Obama as the player of a cheap trick. Of course al-Qaida isn’t a “geopolitical threat” to the United States…”
Romney, I think, failed on two counts. First, he failed to clearly define what a “geopolitical” threat means — or to draw a sharp distinction between that and other kinds of threats. This allowed President Obama — a skilled debater — to conflate these two things.
Second, although we should want our leaders to correctly analyze the foreign policy landscape, playing Cassandra isn’t the best way for a politician to win an election. It may be unfortunate that the American public was, as Weigel implies, largely bored by Russia, but it was also a fact of life. Romney was telling the truth, while Obama was reflecting back the worries and immediate concerns of the people in “the cheap seats.” Advantage Obama.
When you think about it, this was quite an impressive maneuver on Obama’s part. Not only did he pander to the masses, but he also managed to simultaneously add a scholarly ring to it. Ironically, by virtue of agreeing with Obama’s incorrect analysis, one was bestowed a certain degree of intellectual sophistication. Obama played up this snark factor during the debate, adding: “Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” The message was simple: These rubes and their “war on science” think the Soviet Union still exists!
Timing is everything. Being too far ahead of the curve isn’t helpful. And like the guy who gets hit by a car going the wrong way down a one-way street, being retroactively being proven right is cold comfort. The bottom line is that Romney was right on policy, but Obama was right on politics. And guess who got run over…
Obama’s motive for purposefully misrepresenting Romney’s comments is obvious, and it’s easy to understand why the general public — having been fed a stead diet of Islamic terrorism for more than a decade — would guffaw at the mention of Russia. But I leave you with this question: Why were so many of the smart people in the mainstream media also complicit?