Jon Ralston:

A study in contrasts: Obama and Romney at VFW

Wed, Jul 25, 2012 (2 a.m.)

You had to be there.

At the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, that is, to appreciate just how different the tones were and how different the responses were to speeches to the VFW by President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

The addresses to the throng of veterans epitomized the campaign’s state of play — Obama, trying to be above the fray, boastful of what he has accomplished, insistent that he deserves another term/chance while Romney went into the trenches, excoriated the president’s leadership, determined not to let the commander in chief take the high ground. It is no coincidence that Obama’s performance echoed his new ads — a kinder and gentler approach because of his high unfavorables — and that Romney’s was, as The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin described him, “forceful, even aggressive, throughout, bashing the president in blunt language,” as he has been for months.

The crowd, slightly larger for Romney on Tuesday than it was for Obama on Monday, liked much of what the president had to say, including his recognition that Vietnam veterans still were owed a thank-you, but the vets were noticeably roused by Romney’s call for a new “American century” and his bellicose criticism of Obama. It was a microcosm of the campaigns — Romney wants the election to be a referendum on the president’s record while Obama wants to frighten people about what choosing Romney might mean to the putative progress he has made.

These speeches, each about 30 minutes long, put up a mirror to campaigns and candidates, revealing strategies and presaging what’s to come when normal people start paying attention after Labor Day. It seems somehow fitting that this took place in THE swing county in what may be THE swing state in the country.

The VFW convention would seem to be a venue that favors Romney, with polls consistently showing that veterans favor the Republican candidate. Obama, though, clearly saw a chance to gain ground because neither candidate served and he theoretically had a chance to win the favor of 6,000 or so who watched the speeches.

Surely the Romney campaign cringed when VFW national commander Richard DeNoyer introduced the president by saying, “He said he would take care of vets and their families, and he has been true to his word.”

That cuts against the grain of everything Romney would say the following day, portraying Obama as betraying veterans with his policies. Not bad to have the VFW commander gushing — I hope he’s ready for his Obama For America campaign ad close-up.

Obama’s speech did not mention Romney, and although it had a few moments of eloquence, it essentially was a laundry list of what he saw as the reasons veterans should support him — the killing of Osama bin Laden, his ending wars “responsibly” and his commitment to veterans health care.

He was received warmly if not wildly, but he could not have asked for much more. The president’s oblique references to Romney were designed to make the veterans wary of voting for him — the election is a choice, not a referendum.

Romney’s address the following day could not have been more different, a scathing indictment of Obama’s record and essentially portraying him as a weakling who had weakened America in the eyes of the world. His rhetoric was tough, even harsh, and unrelenting.

“We haven’t seen much in the president’s first term that inspires confidence in a second,” Romney told the crowd. And this: “But sadly, this president has diminished American leadership, and we are reaping the consequences. The world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic.”

Romney ratcheted it up even more on national security leaks, declaring, “This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field.”

The VFW folks loved much of this, clapping more heartily, it seemed to me, than they did for the president. Romney may not have presented alternatives or a foreign policy blueprint on the eve of his European trip. But he and his team believe he doesn’t have to because they want this election to be a referendum, not a choice.

The only time the candidates took the identical approach was on the automatic cuts in defense. Obama pledged to hold veterans harmless, drawing a huge round of applause. Romney made the same promise, eliciting an identical reaction.

But this is the agreement that Obama made with the House leaders to get that debt deal — thanks to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s negotiations — and now he wants to pretend he can make exceptions? And Romney, in attacking the president on these cuts, seems to forget that Speaker John Boehner, nearly three-quarters of House Republicans and more than half of the Senate GOP caucus agreed to that deal, too.

So was it just shameless pandering to veterans by both men on that issue?

You didn’t have to be there to answer that one.

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