Weeks after Pervez Musharraf engineered a coup and seized control of Pakistan in 1999, George W. Bush was asked in an interview to name that country’s new leader. He admitted that he had no idea. And it didn’t really hurt him, probably because most Americans also didn’t know—or care—who was running Pakistan back then.
But while the Musharraf coup went largely unnoticed here eight years ago, Thursday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto could be big enough news to affect the presidential race just days before the primary season opens in Iowa.
Bhutto’s slaying dominated Thursday’s news coverage, and not just because of its considerable shock value. It is Pakistan, after all, where Osama bin Laden is probably hiding and where al-Qaeda has regrouped since the invasion of Afghanistan six years ago. The assassination reverses—at least temporarily—the diminishment of the role that foreign policy had been playing in the ’08 campaign thanks to declining U.S. casualties in Iraq.
The main beneficiary of this shift figures to be John McCain, simply because there is such a pronounced gap between his foreign policy resume and those of his two chief G.O.P. rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Mr. McCain has been selling himself as a battered, principled, and straight-shooting old warrior, a man who knows what he believes and who’d rather be right than popular. That’s precisely the kind of character Americans, and Republicans in particular, are attracted to in times of international crisis. And it’s precisely the character Republicans who watched Mr. McCain’s somber response to Bhutto’s death saw.
“It seems to me that the winners are the radical Islamic extremists,” Mr. McCain said. “Benazir Bhutto had dedicated herself and had said on several occasions that she would fight a battle against jihadists and radical Islamic extremists. And she promised the people of Pakistan that.”
The uneasy mood created by Bhutto’s death creates an opening for Mr. McCain, who is already climbing in national and key state polls, to connect with Republican voters who were previously cool toward him because of his apostasies on domestic topics like immigration, campaign finance reform, and tax cuts.
Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Romney also offered responses to Bhutto’s killing, but their words almost didn’t matter. The absence of significant international experience from each man’s portfolio—and the short shrift both of them have given foreign policy in their campaigns—guarantees that almost no one will look to them for comfort or wisdom on a day like Thursday. Mr. Romney used language similar to Mr. McCain’s, chalking up the assassination to “violent Jihadism,” but without Mr. McCain’s commanding presence, his words only reinforced his unfamiliarity with the subject. And Mr. Huckabee didn’t even try to mimic Mr. McCain, offering generic praise for democracy and sympathies for Bhutto and leaving it at that.
Thursday gave Republicans of all ideological stripes a glimpse of John McCain at his best. That impression can only accelerate the momentum he’s built over the last few weeks.
The fallout on the Democratic side is much less clear.
At first blush, Hillary Clinton may seem like the prime beneficiary, simply because her campaign is built on her “experience.”
The problem with this analysis, though, is that, unlike on the Republican side, Bhutto’s assassination does not draw attention to a massive foreign policy credibility gap between the top candidates. Unlike Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee, Barack Obama has not been ignoring foreign policy in his campaign. In fact, much of his appeal is rooted in the “soft power” potential of his presidency—the idea that people in hostile countries will look at American much differently if it elects an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama as its President.
To many Democrats, the turmoil and instability in Pakistan only reinforces the need for a dramatic change in America’s relationship with the rest of the world—a kind of change that the candidate of “experience” simply can’t offer.
Of course, the most clear and substantive voice on Thursday belonged, as often is the case, to Joe Biden. In an MSNBC interview, he calmly assessed the internal politics of Pakistan, cautioned against turning on Mr. Musharraf (despite his obvious shortcomings), and emphasized the predominance of moderate and secular viewpoints among the country’s citizens. He also resisted gloating over the fact that he’s been warning all year that Pakistan, much more than Iran, poses a serious potential threat to the United States.
If Biden were one of the front-runners, Democrats would probably be flocking to him after Thursday. But he’s not, so his words, as usual, fell mostly on deaf ears.