SPARTANBURG – The 2012 election is increasingly shaping up as a redux of 2004.
At Friday’s “commander-in-chief’’ debate, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney seemed to be channeling former Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned in 2004 of another terrorist attack if voters didn’t give President Bush a second term.
“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,’’ Romney said at the outset of the debate sponsored by National Journal and CBS News that focused on foreign policy. “If we elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.’’
Romney’s jarring prediction demonstrated that the GOP is not abandoning its traditional line of attack against the Democratic Party. Even at a time when voters’ biggest worry is the economy and President Obama boasts some bragging rights on foreign policy, Romney and his rivals are poised to tar the Democratic administration as soft on national security.
The Bush-era tactics come at a time when Obama is widely expected to run his own version of the 2004 campaign in an effort to frame the election more as a choice between himself and a (unpalatable) Republican nominee and less as a referendum on his own (insufficient) economic record. The Obama campaign, which has focused its attacks almost exclusively on Romney, has already started to try to portray the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper without a “core.’’
Similarly, Bush’s re-election turned less on his own achievements than on his success at labelling John Kerry a flip-flopper who lacked conviction. The argument was particularly potent in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Despite some reservations about Bush, voters seemed to say in 2004, we’re better safe than sorry.
Romney has demonstrated hawkish views on military intervention throughout the campaign, but he went so far Friday to say that “of course’’ he would attack Iran if necessary. Asked if he would negotiate with the Taliban, he echoed Bush when he said “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.’’
Romney’s version of the neoconservative principles that guided the Bush administration goes like this: “This century must be an American century where America has the strong values, the strongest economy and the strongest military. An American century means a century where America leads the free world.’’
The other Republican candidates also clamored to bash Obama on foreign policy, despite some notable successes by the administration such as the deaths of Osama bin Laden and deposed Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Like Romney, Michele Bachmann predicted dire consequences if the Obama administration won another four years. “The table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel,’’ she said. Later she said, “It is as though we have decided we want to lose the war on terror under President Obama.’’
Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry all gave spirited defenses of torture as a means of gaining information from terrorism suspects. Just as Cheney argued that Kerry would revert the nation to a "pre-9/11 mind-set'' in which attacks are viewed as criminal acts, not part as of the war on terror, Perry suggested he would not shy from using waterboarding to save American lives. “This is war!’’ he declared.
Along the same lines, Gingrich defended the idea of killing an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is living overseas. “Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law. It is an act of war and should be dealt with as an act of war, and the correct thing in an act of war is to kill people who are trying to kill you.’’