Libyan war rattles Democratic political strategists in lead up to 2012 presidential election

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Democratic political strategists are deeply divided over the political risks and benefits of the Libyan intervention, the resulting media coverage and its impact on the fast-approaching 2012 election.

“The upside is that if the objectives are achieved, if Gaddafi — who has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. for decades — is removed from power, and if Libya becomes part of a narrative that the forces of political progress are taking hold [in Arab countries, then the voters will decide]… the president was measured, and his measured action has led to a successful outcome,” said Tad Devine, co-founder of Devine Mulvey, a Democratic consulting firm.

“I don’t see any upside, I don’t see him gaining him any voters,” said Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders, a Democratic consultant who specializes in reaching out to white voters in Appalachia. The risk will be minimized if the intervention “is over in a day or two… [or] a week or two,” he said. The voters he watches are “tired of body-bags coming back to the mountains… we don’t need another American war now,” he said.

“It is appalling that the White House has failed to explain why we are there, and how long we’re going to be there,” said Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist in swing-state North Carolina. Another war “is the last thing the economy needs,” he said.

Multiple polls show the president’s approval rating in the mid-40s, and his disapproval rating in the mid-50s. The available polling doesn’t show strong support for the intervention, and an eve-of-war poll issued by IBOPE Zogby on March 21 showed that 50 percent of Americans support some military intervention to help Libyans, while 38 percent oppose it.

The public’s support for the intervention may not be strong, John Zogby told TheDC. “There is deep distrust among Republican voters for anything-Obama,” and some legislators are annoyed by the administration’s failure to brief them prior to action, he said. Some voters oppose the U.S. getting involved in a “third war,” and some don’t think intervention in Libya is in the national interest, he said. Still, public support for intervention can go up once U.S. forces are committed, he said.

Republican legislators and commentators are divided. Many lack confidence in Obama’s generalship, but are also reluctant to undermine White House, legislative and public support for the anti-jihadi campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, Obama has backing from Republican-affiliated advocates for Arab democracy, including Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “There is a political risk” for Obama, he said, but “I’m not going to fault Obama for taking that risk” on behalf of national-security concerns.

To succeed in Libya, the president should be more assertive, declare that Gaddafi must go, try to kill Gaddafi, and also immediately recognize the rebel groups as the legitimate government of Libya, said Rubin. “He should have recognized an alternative government yesterday,” he said.

The administration’s ambiguous stance towards Gaddafi prompted particular criticism from several Democratic consultants, who point to increasingly skeptical and damaging media coverage of the White House’s war-strategy. On Monday, for example, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell questioned Republican Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar about the administration’s statement that Gaddafi need not be forced out. “If that is one option, has the mission already failed?” she asked.

“General Mullen says Gaddafi is not the object, but then why did we bomb his house?” asked Crone.

Saunders pointed to the Washington Post’s Monday issue, which featured a front-page picture of an exploding armored-artillery gun, and an inside-picture of the president playing soccer with a child in Brazil, during his long-planned five-day trip of South America. “When we are sending men and women into harm’s way, not knowing what’s happening, the president should have his hand on the throttle,” not his foot on a soccer ball, he said. The contrasting images of soldiers at war and the president at peace “will look bad to anyone outside the Beltway, Democratic, Republican or independent,” he said. “I think it is politically bizarre,” he said.

North Carolina and Virginia are crucial swing-states that Obama must win again in 2012. In 2008, North Carolina independents swung 2:1 in his favor, giving him an edge of 15,000 votes, said Crone. But those independents swung back to the GOP in 2010, voting 2:1 for Republican candidates in federal, state and local elections, he said. “It was brutal,” he said. The Libyan intervention was rash and will add to the layers of economic, health care and deficit-spending problems facing Democratic candidates, said Crone.

Devine, however, argues that Obama has an image as a calm, multi-tasking, international manager that will boost the public’s confidence once the intervention succeeds. “He looks like a measured guy, like he’s not throwing his words lightly,” especially when contrasted to the “cowboy president” image of former President George W. Bush, Devine said.

For the 2012 election, that calm style “is a winning political yardstick because Americans have come to the conclusion that the policies favored by Bush — unilateral intervention anywhere in the world — is a failed political strategy,” he said. If he succeeds, “the winning political formula [will be that] the president was measured, and his measured action has led to a successful outcome,” he said.

However, Devine said, “the first risk is that the objective will not be achieved.” The second risk, he said, is that Gaddafi “will lash out and inflict damage on American interests and allied interests, and the [media] story will move away from the attack on Gaddafi to the damage done by Gaddafi.”

The White House needs to step-up its public outreach, Devine said. “What the president has to do, is to explain what they’re doing, to provide a narrative …. [to say] it is very complicated situation, and call it just that,” he said. That plays to Obama’s image as a calm manager, not a cowboy like Bush or Reagan, he said. “If Obama tries to be [an aggressive] Reagan instead of Obama, it is a loser… He should be what he is, someone willing to grapple with incredibly difficult problems,” he said. “That’s his brand, that’s what he needs to keep in place.”

“I’m a Democratic consultant,” said Crone, “and I don’t think the White House has done a good job in telling the American people what our objective is… [Obama] needs to come home and explain why we’re involved in another war.”