The Advantages of Incumbency

BY Gwen Ifill  May 4, 2012 at 4:40 PM EST

Mitt Romney’s May Day plan seemed pretty reasonable for a man who had been systematically and successfully clearing his path to the Republican nomination for more than a year.

Republicans had been quietly dinging President Obama throughout the previous weekend for appearing to be taking a victory lap leading up to the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The Obama campaign helped the GOP’s case by posting a Web video featuring Bill Clinton praising Mr. Obama for making the right decision on that dramatic night one year ago. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., decried it as a “shameless end- zone dance” designed to aid the president’s re-election in a news release. “I’ve had the great honor of serving in the company of heroes,” McCain also told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. “And you know the thing about heroes? They don’t brag.”

This story line seemed to be gathering some momentum — right up until around midday Tuesday. That’s when rumors began to swirl that the end-zone-dancing president was on his way to Afghanistan.

The next 24 hours provided an incontrovertible lesson in the powers of incumbency.

First, there was the secrecy. The president was spirited off to Andrews Air Force base at midnight Monday, while the rest of us made ready for a night’s sleep. While he was in the air with a press pool sworn to secrecy (their mobile devices were taken away to drive home that point), the cover was briefly blown Tuesday morning by a single random tweet that got picked up by the New York Post and the Drudge Report. But once the White House got wind of that, both reports were swiftly denied.

Of course, in our Web age, nothing can be completely wiped clean. And by midday, still-mum news organizations — including the PBS NewsHour — began to move resources into position to cover what would be a dramatic six-hour presidential war zone visit.

While all of this was going on, the Romney forces executed their own plan for the day. The candidate, who was in New York, did a little morning television, met privately with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, picked up some pizza for a visit with local firefighters and appeared before cameras in the company of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The idea was to contrast what Republicans saw as the Obama campaign’s exploitation of the bin Laden anniversary with Romney’s low-key New York visit, which would stir 9/11 memories without appearing to make it too big a deal.

Giuliani was on-hand to act as the surrogate who criticized the president’s triumphalism, and — aside from one persistent and loud New York heckler — everything was going according to plan.

But then the president landed at Bagram Airfield under cover of darkness. And the rest of the day it became “Mitt who?”

This is the way of the media world. We love surprises. The president popping up in Kabul was a whale of a surprise. Mitt Romney eating pizza with firefighters was not.

We are captivated by danger. Any scenario that involves Air Force One jetting into a war zone with its windows blacked out, well, fills that bill. And we adore precedent. A president delivering a live address from said war zone at 4 a.m. Kabul time (at the tail end of the evening news broadcasts on the U.S. East Coast) qualifies. New York street hecklers may be annoying, but seldom dangerous.

Romney was effectively shut down. It’s a heck of a lot easier to question a challenger’s patriotic motives when he is on the campaign trail with you than when he is half a world away high-fiving with camouflage-clad American troops.

That’s when it’s great to be the guy who’s got the job already.

But even a good day can get knocked off course. Even as the president was barreling out of Kabul before the sun rose, a diplomatic mess was unfolding roughly 2,600 miles away in China. There, a sympathetic blind dissident escaped from home detention and holed up in the U.S. Embassy just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to arrive for talks with the Chinese government.

By week’s end, it would all turn into a sticky diplomatic mess. If an extended victory lap was on the president’s agenda, it was cut brutally short.

It turns out there is a downside to incumbency too.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.