Paul Pillar

The Campaign Damage Continues

Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina likely means that the race for the Republican presidential nomination will continue longer than it otherwise would have. People with different interests will react differently to that prospect. Democrats who believe that a longer season of Republicans cutting each other up helps President Obama's reelection campaign will be happy. Republicans who believe the same thing will be unhappy (unless perhaps they are pulling for Gingrich or someone else other than Mitt Romney). Other Republicans will be comforted by the concept of a bruising battle for the nomination toughening their eventual nominee. Political junkies who enjoy watching the campaign fireworks will be pleased. Those disgusted by the content of the campaign will be turned off.

My own principal thought about a longer primary campaign involves a concern I wrote about last September, which is how foreign governments and other foreigners interpret and react to the candidates' rhetoric. With particular reference to what Romney and the others had been saying about China and Iran, the damage involved comes from candidates' tough talk exacerbating cycles of hostility and distrust between the United States and certain foreign countries. The foreigners do not tend to brush off the bellicosity as merely bits of meat thrown to the party base in whatever state is holding a primary that week. They read it as indicative of entrenched and widely held American attitudes. Since September, the tough talk about Iran in particular has become more extreme, and this has added to the dangerous escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran.

Walter Pincus had a piece in the Washington Post last week that addresses another kind of damage. His main subject was Afghanistan and how several of Romney's statements on that subject have played fast and loose with the facts. Pincus ends by explaining why he takes Romney's campaign remarks seriously:

Because I believe when he became president, Obama felt bound by his often-repeated statements as a candidate that Iraq was the “wrong war” and that the United States should shift to the “right war” in Afghanistan. Those campaign remarks, made to prove he was tough, led him in early 2009 to overstate that we had not only to defeat the Taliban, but also nation-build a democratic Afghanistan. Fortunately, today, our goal is less expansive and a bit more realistic.

I would add to Pincus's point that the danger is not just that a new president would feel obliged to abide by his campaign rhetoric. (Romney, experienced flip-flopper that he is, might actually be less guided than others would be by any such sense of consistency.) The problem is also that repeated invocation of a supposed national interest or goal comes to be seen by others as some sort of commitment, accompanied by the belief that backing away from the commitment would involve a loss of prestige or credibility.

Much of the extreme stuff and especially the bellicosity about Iran will continue into the general-election campaign. But bearing in mind the damage being done, I would be happy to see our long national nightmare known as the primary election campaign over sooner rather than later.

Image: Gage Skidmore