Grading the Candidates on Pakistan

It was an opportunity to look "presidential" and score points with the voters. The death of Benazir Bhutto which plunged nuclear power Pakistan into crisis and chaos was one of those unscripted, unexpected events during a campaign that reveals something important about the candidates; their ability to think on their feet and project an aura of knowledge designed to reassure voters in a time of instability for a major ally:

Think of Mr. bin Laden’s videotape message late in the 2004 election — giving President Bush a chance to look more commanding than Senator John Kerry — or the twists of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, as Ronald Reagan made President Jimmy Carter look feckless.

And all of the contenders rushed to weigh in, determined and eager to use the moment to show command of issues both large (Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan) and small (the proper pronunciation of Rawalpindi, the garrison city where Ms. Bhutto died). While there were some stabs at substance — Mrs. Clinton called for an independent investigation into Ms. Bhutto’s death, and Mr. Richardson called for cutting off all aid to Pakistan — most of the candidates concentrated on projecting the aura of a steady hand in a crisis.

“Pakistan is a foreign policy problem that requires nuance and finesse, so it’s a great test of presidential mettle,” said Xenia Dormandy, director of the Belfer Center’s Project on India and the Subcontinent at Harvard University. “There are so many priorities: building a democracy, the war on terror, nonproliferation. I do think we’re going to see a split between those candidates who have the experience to recognize the complexities, and those who are just determined to play the politics on this one.”
The following attempts to grade out candidates on their response to the crisis based on a consensus of political observers.

Republicans receiving an "A"

John McCain highlighted his personal relationship with both Mrs. Bhutto and President Musharraf and his support for the Pakistani leader.

Fred Thompson conveyed a grasp of the nuclear issue and tied the assassination to the larger War against extremists.

Republicans receiving a "B"

Mitt Romney projected an effective calm and confidence in his knowledge of the consequences but misspoke, referring to CIA "bureau chiefs" rather than station chiefs.

Rudy Giuliani spoke well and projected seriousness but his call for "stability" could have been interpreted as a green light to Musharraf for another crackdown.

Republicans receiving a "D"

Mike Huckabee flailed wildly about in his response. First, he contrasted the assassination with the smooth transfer of power in the United States. Then he tried to tie the assassination to immigration, warning that we should keep an eye on the 660 Pakistani illegals who are in the country. When asked where he got that number, he became incoherent, finally saying something about a CIA briefing. Some analysts believe the Huckabee campaign is now officially over after his performance.

Republicans receiving an "incomplete"

Not a word on the assassination from Duncan Hunter that I could find - either in the press or on his website.

Republicans receiving an "F" 

Ron Paul blamed American policies for the assassination.

Democrats Receiving an "A"

Like McCain, Hillary Clinton highlighted her personal relationship with Bhutto and appeared "presidential" in her response. Her call for an investigation played well with Democrats.

Joe Biden has been stressing the problems in Pakistan for weeks and spoke intelligently about the consequences.

Democrats receiving a "B"

Bill Richardson has also been touting the unrest in Pakistan recently but sounded a little off key calling for Musharraf to step down.

Democrats receiving a "C"

Senator Obama sounded the right notes of regret and warning of the danger but then inexplicably tried to tie the assassination to Clinton's vote authorizing force against Iraq - something he was ridiculed for by some. Not a death blow to his campaign but it once again plays to Hillary's theme of experience.

John Edwards spoke well initially and then pulled the grandstanding stunt of calling Musharraf urging him not to crackdown. Why Musharraf took the call is a mystery and Edwards making it in the first place did not sit well with the White House and could be seen as injecting partisan politics into a dangerous situation.

Chris Dodd did well but his statements were lost in the imbroglio over Obama's charges against Hillary and Edwards' grandstanding. Not his fault but he got no traction whatsoever for his efforts.

Democrats receiving a "D"

Dennis Kucinich blamed "American policies" and "interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan" by the US for the assassination. Not a word about al-Qaeda or terrorism.

Democrats receiving an "incomplete"

Mike Gravel's two sentence statement of regret isn't even worth linking to.