The death of Osama bin Laden was not a partisan triumph. It seems craven, in the wake of an event that caps a decade-long manhunt touched off by mass murder, to examine how politicians are using it to score political points. But the daring raid on bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottobad was without question a politically momentous event, and the way in which the two political parties handle it will be telling. Just as the President’s statement stressed Obama’s unceasing involvement in the operation, the reactions of prominent Republicans — in particular those vying for the 2012 GOP nomination — carry clues as to how the GOP will try to tamp down the political bump Obama will get amid the elation of bringing the world’s most-wanted fugitive to bloody justice.
Across the board, Republicans harked back to the loss of Sept. 11, 2001, praised bin Laden’s killing and thanked the military for its service in bringing the terrorist to justice. The trickier decision, it seems, was how — or whether — to credit the man whose administration presided over the event. Mitt Romney, widely considered the early front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012, offered “congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the President.” Putative presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty praised Obama, but gave Bush top billing. “In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush promised that America would bring Osama bin Laden to justice — and we did,” Pawlenty said. “I want to congratulate America’s armed forces and President Obama for a job well done.”
Others potential players in the hunt for 2012 declined to mention the President. Sarah Palin thanked the troops. Rick Santorum issued a statement commending “all those involved for this historic triumph.” Michele Bachmann issued a statement expressing hope that “this is the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism”–a loaded word that winks at the fears of her base. “It is unusual to celebrate a death,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee began soberly, before offering the sort of cowboy-style denouement that would haunt President Bush: “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”
Bush Administration alumni varied in their reactions as well. In a classy statement, former President George W. Bush “congratulated [Obama] and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude.” Former VP Dick Cheney thanked Obama and urged vigilance. Donald Rumsfeld crowed, “All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al-Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue.” Rudy Giuliani, former New York City Mayor and TIME’s 2001 Person of Year, offered praise “for President Obama for making the decision” for activating the cadre of Navy SEALs who carried out the risky strike.
Many Congressional Republicans issued statements explicitly commending Obama, including House Speaker John Boehner and New York Republican Peter King. Others redirected the credit to the President who hunted bin Laden for seven years; Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Armed Services Chair Buck McKeon were among those who invoked Bush in the first sentence of their statements. Rush Limbaugh had praise for Obama, but the key qualifier is why: because he “continued the Bush policies.” Andrew Sullivan was struck by Limbaugh’s “lionization” of the President, but his comments were surely laced with a measure of mockery.
Other leading GOPers, including Senate
Majority Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, conspicuously omitted mention of Obama. And some conservatives, apparently operating on the (perhaps mistaken) presumption that enhanced-interrogation techniques led to the tip that triggered bin Laden’s demise, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a shot at the President. “Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?” Iowa Rep. Steve King sneered on Twitter. Conservative commentator John Podhoretz was less restrained, writing on Twitter: “LET’S HEAR IT FOR WATERBOARDING!!!!!!”
Note: Post updated at 2:45 PM to include Rush Limbaugh’s comments and correct Mitch McConnell’s title.