Can we define ‘politicizing’?

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Mitt Romney apparently doesn’t think the U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden should be a “political” issue.

In a rare joint television appearance, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his wife Ann sat down with CBS’s Charlie Rose on Tuesday to discuss the presidential race. […]

“I acknowledged the president’s success and think he has every right to take credit for ordering that attack,” Romney said. “At the same time, I think it was very disappointing for the president to try to make this a political item by suggesting that I wouldn’t have ordered such a raid. Of course I would have.”

We could note that Romney tried to make this a political item during the last election when he criticized Obama’s vow to get bin Laden, and we could note that Romney explicitly said he wouldn’t have ordered such a raid.

But let’s put that aside and consider a separate issue: what do complaints about politicization really mean?

I’ll gladly concede that common decency dictates that some issues shouldn’t be turned into partisan, ideological, and/or campaign disputes. In 1994, for example, just a few days before the midterm elections, a deranged woman named Susan Smith drowned her two young sons. Newt Gingrich, at the time, argued, “The mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. I think people want to change and the only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

The politicization of infanticide was, for lack of a better word, disgusting. I’d like to think most reasonable people would agree Gingrich took an issue that had nothing to do with politics, tried to exploit a tragedy to advance partisan ends, and crossed the line.

But most examples aren’t so obvious. Is killing the al Qaeda leader responsible for 9/11 a political issue? By most measures, of course it is.

A politician told voters what he’d do if elected; he followed through after the election; and now he wants to remind voters about his counter-terrorism victory during a campaign. It’s neither unexpected nor unusual. Different candidates and parties have different ideas about how to address national security, and unlike a sick woman killing her kids, dealing with international threats is an issue that voters are likely to consider when evaluating candidates.

Romney finds this “very disappointing,” but does anyone seriously believe he’d make these comments if a Republican launched the mission that killed bin Laden? Indeed, does anyone remember Romney complaining when his party made every effort to shamelessly exploit 9/11 in 2004 and 2008?

Or more to the point, if Obama’s plan last year had failed, is there any doubt that Romney would make it “a political item” now?

It’s far from clear what Romney thinks can and should count as “a political item,” and some clarifications would be helpful. When the former governor talks about unemployment, is he politicizing job losses? When he vows to uproot the health care system, is Romney politicizing Americans’ access to health care? When he condemns Obama for bring troops home from Iraq, is Romney politicizing a war?

It’s an unproductive approach to political debate. If Romney disapproves of Obama’s counter-terrorism policies, he should make the case. If Romney no longer agrees with what he said during his last presidential campaign, he can explain why he’s changed his mind. If Romney or anyone else believes national security chest-thumping is unseemly, there’s certainly a reasonable case to be made, and plenty of sensible people across the spectrum may very well agree.

But using “politicization” as some kind of trump card, to be played when issues come up that make him uncomfortable, is lazy.

Osama Bin Laden and Mitt Romney

Can we define 'politicizing'?

Updated