It's that special time of year again, where we remember troops and solemnify 9/11, instead of reducing the whole of our overseas conflicts and anti-terror policy to some D-grade Seinfeldism about airport check-ins, taking our shoes off and whaaaat is the deeeaal with mini-shampoo bottles.
This time of year seems to elevate the discourse just a little, if not in topic than at least in the patina of thoughtfulness we try to grant it. So it should probably be a disappointment that Afghanistan-related discussion on MSNBC yesterday afternoon amounted to finger-wagging at Mitt Romney for failure to properly fill out his political word checklist.
Here's the story: Mitt Romney did not specifically thank the troops or specifically mention Afghanistan in a speech. Now here's how old the story is: the speech was his nomination acceptance at the RNC.
Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard was the first to register dismay at Romney's troops omission, which is fitting, because Kristol is running to win Being Right About the Presidency 2012. As in the past, he has to give enough support to Romney to have backed the right horse if Romney wins out, while sufficiently chiding his campaign so he can claim to have spotted the fatal flaws all along if Romney loses.
On the left, David Corn of Mother Jones was also on Noun Watch, writing:
[As] far as I can tell, I was one of the first, if not the first, journalists to note that Romney had inexplicably short-changed the troops in Afghanistan.... As he neared the end, at 11:11 pm, I tweeted, "Number of times Mitt Romney mentions Afghanistan or the troops there: 0. #rnc2102." A minute later, I followed up with this tweet: "100K or so US men and women serving in Afghanistan, and they don't get a shout-out from the man who wants to be commander-in-chief. #rnc2012."
Romney's speech wasn't particularly good; it was devoid of facts or plans of any substance, and if you watched it without sound, he was as off-puttingly robotic as ever. But he made suitably vague noises about having a commitment to a peerlessly strong military, which should probably be enough when you're committed to a speech on economic issues and re-branding yourself as a Domestic-Issues Solution Humanoid.
More importantly, it speaks to a profoundly fucked set of criteria for political policy that people listened to the speech with an informal checklist of requisite nouns, marking them off because merely their invocation is good enough to qualify as a significant campaign appeal or affirmation. This is not the Discount Doublecheck. Romney does not need to pump his hands at his sides and mime wearing a WWE Troopsmanship Belt. B.J. Raji does not need to come out and shake his ass to affirm that someone said "Greatest Generation." If just mentioning a topic is substance enough, then not mentioning it is equally immaterial, because you're grading both on the same scale of transparent insipidity.
Romney might be an uncomfortable-looking panderer with wavering convictions on everything except his haircut, but it's an enormous stretch to think his omission of thanks for the troops evinces an ungrateful or contemptuous attitude toward them. He's certainly spoken with the appropriate political faux reverence in previous debates and countless times on the stump. With the exception of a truly amoral goblin like Dick Cheney, probably every politician cares about American soldiers, even if he or she professes that by rote or undertakes policy that harms them.
What should make this especially irksome is that equating a failure to mention the troops with an active disdain for them is about as trite as the 2007-8 GOP assertion that Obama's opting not to wear an American flag pin evinced his innate hatred for America. Plenty of liberal journalists like—just to draw a name out of a hat, here—David Corn thought that was a ridiculously shallow and preposterous analysis, and they were right.
But Barack Obama is "winning" the foreign and military policy topics in this election cycle, so these things are important now, in the same way that Democrats have reversed the executive privilege and war crimes debate. In 2008, when the GOP and McCain locked down military policy by default, presidential accountability and restraint were the Democrats' watchwords. Today, when it's a Democrat using drones and an undeclared war to turn Yemen into a hell-hopscotch of shell craters, well, the entire DNC audience couldn't OORAH loud enough. "Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive and did you hear that draft-dodging Frenchie-talking motherfucker didn't even mention THE TROOPS? When he makes out with his wife, they oughtta call it 'surrender kissing.' Now I'm gonna go freedom kiss the president."
Romney only worsened things by not having a ready-made bit of spin to address his troops omission, jamming his foot halfway down his trachea and conflating "military" and "troops" in the least empathetic way possible. He defended himself by talking about policy instead of people, then changed his defense to include a speech he gave to the American Legion, saying it "described [his] policy as it relates to Afghanistan and other foreign policy and our military." His Afghanistan references in the speech lasted for about 16 seconds. A more confident or charismatic man could have written this off by saying that he trusts the troops to know his appreciation for them and commitment to their safety because he has pledged to strengthen the military, but Romney is not that man.
Instead, the flubs kept the story alive, enabling Democrats already amped up by their ability to run with a BIG WAR STICK to beat Mitt around the news cycle for another day. Instead of the rightful response, "Jesus Christ, it's a dumb oversight, who cares?" it was time to climb up on a drone and whoop and whip the cowboy hat in the air. Yesterday, there was Martin Bashir—famed for interviewing Clausewitz, Moltke, Guderian and Jacko—delivering another one of his sententious Edward R. Middlebrow harangues, because this is very serious:
Mr. Romney those 16 seconds [of your American Legion speech] did not include a single word about policy. And while you're increasingly unsettled by questions about your glaring omission, imagine just for a moment how unsettled those troops must feel, who are serving in Afghanistan. That's worth a helluva lot more than 16 seconds, sir. Stay with us. The day's top lines are coming up.
[cut to White House exterior]
["Float On" by Modest Mouse fades in]
"Don't you worry we'll all float on
All right already we'll all float—"
Good night and good grief.