WASHINGTON — With America embroiled in its longest armed conflict, Mitt Romney became the first Republican since 1952 to accept his party’s nomination without mentioning war.
Three election cycles after the 2001 terrorist attacks, neither Romney nor his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, had anything to say about terrorism or war while on their party’s biggest stage. The only one who did Thursday was actor Clint Eastwood, who won cheers for suggesting invading Afghanistan was a mistake and calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops — a line that might have earned boos and catcalls four years ago.
The Romney strategy reflects the weak public support for the Afghanistan war, fatigue over a decade of terrorism fears and the central role of the economy in the campaign. But it was still a remarkable shift in tone for a party that, even in times of peace, has used the specter of war to call for greater military spending and tough foreign policy.
Candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon criticized the handling of the Vietnam War. Bob Dole said the way to prevent conflict is to prepare for more, greater wars than a country will need to fight. Ronald Reagan warned that a weak nation would tempt the Soviet Union.
“Four times in my lifetime America has gone to war, bleeding the lives of its young men into the sands of beachheads, the fields of Europe and the jungles and rice paddies of Asia,” Reagan said in 1980. “We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak.”
Even President Gerald Ford, who in 1976, declared that, “not a single American is at war anywhere on the face of this Earth tonight,” went on to say, “A strong military posture is always the best insurance for peace.”
Things are different now, 11 years after President George W. Bush pledged to “starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or rest.”
Osama bin Laden is dead. The Iraq war is over. Al-Qaida is weakened. The color coded alerts that for years warned of a constant, unseen danger have faded away. None of the presidential or vice presidential candidates for either party has ever served in the military, a first in 80 years.
And although 79,000 troops remain in Afghanistan, public support has eroded for the decade long campaign there. An AP-GfK poll found in May that 66 percent of voters believe the country should not be involved in Afghanistan anymore. That same poll found that only 37 percent of Republicans backed the war.
Republican strategist Tony Fratto said it was odd, personally, to hear a major Republican speech with no mention of the issue that has so dominated the past decade. Fratto served as a White House spokesman and aide to the younger Bush, whose presidency was consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But with 8.3 percent unemployment nationwide, Republicans see the economy as the driving issue this year. And Fratto said Romney’s primary goal Thursday night was to connect with voters on a personal level and redraw the caricature of him as wooden and out of touch.
“If you’re going to leave some things out, you’re going to leave out things that aren’t highest on the list of concerns of voters,” Fratto said. “It’s more reflective of what Americans are interested in hearing from their candidates right now.”
Romney did briefly refer to Iran and said President Barack Obama had not done enough to prevent that country from pursuing nuclear weapons. But his only mention of war was not Iraq or Afghanistan.
It was World War II, and he used it as a way to frame his life story.
“I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer,” Romney said. “It was a time when Americans were returning from war and eager to work.”
Conservative commentator William Kristol, a Republican standard-bearer, criticized Romney’s decision.
“Leave aside the question of the political wisdom of Romney’s silence, and the opportunities it opens up for President Obama next week,” Kristol noted on his blog. “What about the civic propriety of a presidential nominee failing even to mention, in his acceptance speech, a war we’re fighting and our young men and women who are fighting it?”
At no point was the incongruity more apparent than during Eastwood’s unscripted speech. The renowned filmmaker suggested that invading Afghanistan was a foolhardy decision and teased Obama for it, even though it began under Bush.
“You thought the war in Afghanistan was OK. You know, I mean, you thought that was something worth doing. We didn’t check with the Russians to see how they did there for 10 years,” Eastwood said to great laughter.
Then, talking about Obama’s schedule for bringing troops home by the end of 2014, Eastwood said the sensible question was, “Why don’t you just bring them home tomorrow morning?”
The quip earned him applause and cheers.