Archie Bland: The bumper sticker approach to politics can work

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The Independent Online

Joe Biden's line was one of the better ones to emerge from the US election campaign so far. If you were trying to sum up Barack Obama's four years in office, he said, you could do it in a bumper sticker: "Bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive".

Well, it's a little more complicated than that. But there's no questioning the vice president's populist instincts. That message is bound to be at the heart of the Democratic campaign over the next six months. It's pretty obvious politics.

But in that political calculus, there's a possible landmine for the Obama campaign. This week, one year after bin Laden's death in Abbottabad, Mr Obama took a swing at Mitt Romney on exactly this topic, using a dog-eared quote of Mr Romney's from 2007 to suggest that his rival wouldn't have approved the raid in question.

Scrambling to brush off what could be a tricky slight if it sticks – might as well say that you'd have given bin Laden bed and breakfast in the White House as have the US electorate think you didn't want him dead – Mr Romney dismissively argued that "even Jimmy Carter" would have ordered the raid. And, he added, it was a shame to see Obama using an event "that unified our country to once again divide us".

All's fair in politics, I guess, so it's hard to take a moral position against this sort of argument in isolation. As a piece of logic, though, it absolutely stinks. Leave aside that its proponents are members of the party that has made its greatest gains by politicising national security. The point is, if it's at all important, of course it's a matter of politics. If you think it's a significant thing to have done, it would be bonkers not to include it as a factor in your choice of president.

The weirdness of this argument – this was good, so you can't take the credit for it! – is elided by the way that 'politics' is so universally viewed as a dirty word. If you 'play politics' with something, you exploit it for the sake of your ambition. To me, it's manifestly absurd for anyone trying to be president to have a go at anyone else for being cynical in their pursuit of power, but if they can get away with it, good luck to them.

The reason I mind isn't so much that it's a piece of politics itself: it's because it's actually a little dangerous. Follow this argument to its logical, and not very distant, conclusion, and you'll find that any governmental achievement that's actually popular is disallowed as a part of your record.

Joe Biden's bumper sticker might not be terribly sophisticated. But it can't be excluded from the debate. After all, in the end, doing stuff that's popular occasionally means you're also doing stuff that's right.