January 2, 2008

Don't Bash The Mismanager?

Mitt Romney apparently got caught not taking his own advice yesterday. While the New York Times quotes Romney as scolding Mike Huckabee for criticizing George Bush in a December essay for the Council on Foreign Relations, Reuters has Romney doing much the same thing at another venue. First, the Times quotes Romney in central Iowa:

Mitt Romney was in central Iowa, where he went after Mr. Huckabee for making critical comments about President Bush’s foreign policy on Monday.

“I think we should come together and recognize the great work our president is doing and not take our rhetoric or our plays from Democratic playbook,” Mr. Romney said. “This is the kind of stuff you expect of the Democrats, but it’s certainly not something you expect of a presidential contender on the Republican side.”

In Johnstown, however, Romney appeared comfortable with that same approach:

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on Tuesday the Bush administration mismanaged the Iraq war, distancing himself from his party's unpopular president two days before Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential contest.

"I think we did a less than effective job in managing the conflict following the collapse of Saddam Hussein," the former Massachusetts governor said at a news conference. "I think we were under prepared for what occurred, understaffed, under planned, and, in some respects, under managed."

The problem for Republicans is that the current success of the surge points out the failure of the previous two years of the war, a failure that reflects directly on Donald Rumsfeld and by extension Bush himself. Bush made the right change just short of too late, and the situation has improved greatly in Iraq. However, the change should have come at least two years earlier, which John McCain has said since 2004. We didn't have enough people in the theater to succeed against a widespread insurgency, let alone multiple terrorist forces.

Republican contenders have to show that they learned from this lesson. Most of them have chosen to do so without specifically criticizing the administration. They instead talk about increasing the force size of the Army and Marine Corps, and utilizing a broader range of military advisors on defense policy. Even McCain blunts his criticism by focusing on Rumsfeld.

And that's really the difference between Huckabee and Romney on this issue, although Romney muddied it yesterday. Huckabee charged Bush with having an "arrogant" foreign policy without noting the context of the environment in which it was conducted. Romney criticized the administration for its mismanagement, but didn't characterize the failure as a personal one on the part of Bush. Still, Romney's mixed message in Iowa will have some scratching their heads on where the line sits.

UPDATE: Team Romney responds:

Throughout this year, Governor Romney has been consistently making the point that, while the initial execution of the war in Iraq was successful, the occupation that followed was undermanaged. As you recognize, these obvious and responsible comments are a far cry from accusing President Bush of an “arrogant bunker mentality” or echoing Sen. Harry Reid’s accusation that President Bush that President Bush knew four years ago that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program.

They also sent a link to more extensive comments by Romney which give a broader context, and this comes from almost a year ago (February 18, 2007):

Again, this is a high-wire act that all of the contenders have to do without crashing. I would say that these remarks are notably positive about the surge given that it hadn't yet been implemented, saying that he was "absolutely confident that it's the right thing to do" -- and George Stephanopolous notes that Rudy Giuliani had expressed a lack of confidence in its potential for success at the time.


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