October 22nd, 2012
11:30 PM ET
6 years ago

'Horses and bayonets' shows Obama's debate strategy

(CNN) - Perhaps it only makes sense that a candidate who prepared for a presidential debate near Colonial Williamsburg would slam Mitt Romney's plan for more Navy ships with the phrase "horses and bayonets."

President Barack Obama's quip - meant to make the point that modern warfare doesn't require the type of equipment it did in the past - appeared part of a larger strategy of casting his opponent as stuck in a time warp on important issues. And Republicans, seeing an opening, are making sure shipbuilders just down the road from the president' Virginia prep location are aware of the president's suggestion their industry is a thing of the past.

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Obama made the jab Monday at his final debate with Mitt Romney.

"You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916," Obama said in a pointed jab at the GOP nominee. "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed."

He continued, "We had these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. So the question is not a game of battleship where we're counting ships. It's 'What are our capabilities?'"

That was in response to an allegation from Romney that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917."

"The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission," the Republican candidate continued. "We're now at under 285. We're headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That's unacceptable to me."

Romney was referring to the large cuts to the defense budget that would be triggered if a deal isn't reached on reducing the federal debt by the end of the year. His assertion that 313 ships are required for a fully operational Navy uses an outdated figure – Navy Secretary Ray Mabus dropped the number to 300 ships in April.

Mabus has also pushed back on criticism of the Navy's strength compared to 1917, saying it's an outdated way of looking at American defense strategy.

"We have all heard the point that this is the smallest fleet the Navy’s had since 1917. But comparing our fleet today to the one in 1917 is like comparing the telegraph to the smart phone. They’re just not comparable," Mabus said, also in April. When he made the remarks, he was not specifically referring to criticism from Romney.

The "horses and bayonets" line soon became the debate's viral catchphrase, following "big bird," "marlarkey" and "binders full of women" as the pull-out refrain that set the internet afire. The term followed the now-familiar routine of trending on Twitter (hashtag #horsesandbayonets), followed by a debate-inspired tumblr and a Facebook page . The creations mostly featured the inscrutable image of Romney mounted on a unicorn.

Obama's Revolution-era flashback was one of several attempts by the president to cast Romney as behind the times. Obama also pinned his GOP rival to the 1980s - "they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back" - for his remark to CNN in March that Russia was the United States' number one geopolitical foe.

In stump speeches, Obama harks to another era for Romney's stance on reproductive rights, saying the candidate's position is "more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century."

And Obama hammers Romney for favoring a "trickle-down" economic approach, saying that method was a proven failure in the past.

Yet Republicans say Obama's lumping together of Navy ships with "horses and bayonets" could harm him in the key battleground of Virginia, where some of the Navy's largest shipbuilding and repair operations are based. Obama and Romney have both been battling fiercely for votes in the southeastern part of the state, where communities in Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth are largely sustained by Navy operations.

Republicans immediately latched onto the comment on Twitter, saying it showed Obama would be open to cutting military jobs in the commonwealth.

And Romney's surrogates blasted the president in statements.

"President Obama's dismissive comments about the Navy tonight should be concerning for any voter who cares about the safety and security of Americans at home and abroad," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said in a statement distributed by Romney's campaign. "President Obama has not only ignored these concerns – but his flippant comment about 'horses and bayonets' was an insult to every sailor who has put his or her life on the line for our country."

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Filed under: 2012 • Mitt Romney • Navy • President Obama
soundoff (688 Responses)
  1. truth hurts

    Kiss Virginia GOOD BYE Obama!!! Another absolutely STUPID and CLUELESS statement by the Clown in Chief. BTW, our military DOES still use bayonets! Obama insinuates ships and the navy are obsolete tools of the past and then goes on to say we are shifting our focus to the Pacific Rim WHERE A LARGE NAVY IS REQUIRED! BTW, most of our equipment and troops moves BY SHIP. Obama went for a cheap insult which proves he doesn't know what the heck he is talking about. This clown act has GOT to go.

    October 22, 2012 11:37 pm at 11:37 pm |
  2. Vanessa

    Romney proved he has no idea about running a country and dealing with the world. He acts and sounds like a car salesman trying to sell me a72 nova dressed as a new BMW

    October 22, 2012 11:39 pm at 11:39 pm |
  3. Howard

    Obama wins on sarcasm ... but, when it comes to fixing our country, and our economy ... Romney is the clear winner.
    Romney / Ryan 2012

    October 22, 2012 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  4. a voter

    Regarding the discussion on the size of the Navy... Obama was was not being dismissive of the Navy itself, the ships, or the builders of them... he was being dismissive of Romney attempting equate the basic number of the fleet with its capability and rather humorously at that. This article is altogether ridiculous.

    October 22, 2012 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  5. Evergreen

    Fewer ships does not mean fewer workers. I am sure the new ships are bigger and have more fire power and cost a lot more.

    October 22, 2012 11:45 pm at 11:45 pm |
  6. Adam

    I think that the comment is being taken way out of context and probably wasn't intended on insulting anybody in Virginia and will have little to no effect on the election.

    Sorry Virginia but your electoral votes wont mean much in his plan to win the map. Ohio is all that matters at this point. He wins Ohio, he wins the election.

    October 22, 2012 11:46 pm at 11:46 pm |
  7. Jake

    That's the only ammo the GOP got out of that? Taking an analogy out of context?
    He never said they were a think of the past. Just saying comparing today's numbers to numbers from almost 100 years ago is incredibly naive. Things change within course of 5 years, for heaven's sake. You're able to achieve the same goals with fewer ships. Numbers aren't everything.

    Really, the whole connection between the Navy and the "horses and bayonets" comment was that they were in the same paragraph. If that is how the average voter interprets things, I'm worried for our future as a species.

    October 22, 2012 11:47 pm at 11:47 pm |
  8. szinda

    If you don't understand what the President said you probably shouldn't be voting, since you're not capable of making informed decisions regarding who you should vote for.

    October 22, 2012 11:47 pm at 11:47 pm |
  9. Name dead pan

    I'll take an American car over a foreign one any day

    October 22, 2012 11:48 pm at 11:48 pm |
  10. Gabrielle Mecham

    President Obama did not make that comment with intentions to degrade our Navy and their commitment to their job and country. He was simply pointing out that the US is aware of technological advances and that there is not a dire need for ships like the old ships of the early 20th century. We will always need a navy but we need to focus on the DIRE needs of the United States and not live by the notion of keeping the American people in fear that we will lose our status if we pull back a tiny portion of our military. Ridiculous!

    October 22, 2012 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  11. GuyinVA

    I think Governor Romney was speaking of the number of ships in the Navy now as compared to the number requested by the Navy. Didn't he mention we had fewer than the Navy has said they need? Correct me on that if I'm wrong. I only caught a little of that one. However, I live in VA, and I believe this "horses and bayonets" comment may hurt the president in the long run.

    October 22, 2012 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  12. Anonymous

    Mabus still said they need 300 ships and have 285. That's a shortage, bayonets or not.

    October 22, 2012 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  13. Obama fan

    Obama will win again! Haters will lose again!

    October 22, 2012 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  14. MP in VA

    I live in the area. The president's comment did nothing to irritate anyone who actually knows what the heck he's talking about. The president made it clear it's about capability, not numbers. It's a non-issue for anyone but the blowhards that want to make a big issue out of nothing.

    October 22, 2012 11:51 pm at 11:51 pm |
  15. Wraith

    Did you even listen to the debate, its not a correlation of Bayonets and horses to our navy. Its the ridiculous assertion that a ship of the 1900 era is even remotely a comparison to a ship of today. One American Aircraft Carrier of today's quality would have owned the sea's in the first Two world wars. You might try listening to the debate not regurgitating nonsense spewed from folks who could care less about you and more about their hold on what little of the government they have left.

    October 22, 2012 11:51 pm at 11:51 pm |
  16. Mcat

    Romey is strong in foreign policy, he will fight with China to get them to play fair game in currency.

    October 22, 2012 11:51 pm at 11:51 pm |
  17. Jim Sarden

    You do realize that Obama has purchased more ships than Bush....Right? It was Romney who was slighting the capability of today's Navy. Guess haters gonna hate.

    October 22, 2012 11:52 pm at 11:52 pm |
  18. Name


    October 22, 2012 11:53 pm at 11:53 pm |
  19. LILY

    Our Marines still use bayonets- and since we have many more marines- I think we probably have more of them now than in 1916-they also used horses in Afghanistan--but our clueless leader -has skipped over 50% of his National Security Briefings and went a whole year without addressing our troops so his ignorance is to be expected!!!!

    October 22, 2012 11:53 pm at 11:53 pm |
  20. Pat Wade

    Our soldiers and Marines are still issued bayonets. And in northern Iraq our special forces rode into battle on horseback.

    October 22, 2012 11:54 pm at 11:54 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    What a stupid stupid thing for people to get their bowels in an uproar about! You only think this is significant if you are already an Obama hater. Stupidity thy name is Tea Party.

    October 22, 2012 11:54 pm at 11:54 pm |
  22. Teacher of Military

    In regards to Mr. "truth hurts" statement. Seems the only one clueless is you bud! What Obama said was the need for old ships of the past are out of date! Battleships and the like are useless there genius, the newer modern ships are far more capable and you need fewer of them to do the job. WoW! ..Please go back to your coloring books and have the nurse change your diaper, oh and stay away from the computer!

    October 22, 2012 11:54 pm at 11:54 pm |
  23. womenvote

    Obama is correct and funny at the same time. Obama wins my vote.

    October 22, 2012 11:55 pm at 11:55 pm |
  24. Andrew

    I was voting for Romney after the last 2 debates. This debate really showed me that Romney's Foreign Policy was very confusing, he flip flopped many times, and in the view of the worlds eye that is not good, and you cant trust a leader that does that. I am sorry but Romney really was in the little league in Foreign Policy with the world as it is now, we cant have some one that does that. Obama will get my vote now he showed real Leadership quality, with out pandering to targeted audiences and Investments in Iran's oil field sector?! Why is this just coming out now? Why did Romney just act like it was not even said by Obama? Any one know?

    October 22, 2012 11:56 pm at 11:56 pm |
  25. Lee

    From that discussion, I understood that the nature of our military strategies have changes. We don't need sheer numbers of weaponry. We have "advanced" weaponry that avoids using "lower forms of weaponry." This analogy was to poke fun at his suggestion that we need sheer numbers to be safer. It's the same reason why we don't need thousands of horses and bayonets. Instead, we only need thousands less of each type of weaponry. Even so, we can use stealth, bombs, etc...

    October 22, 2012 11:58 pm at 11:58 pm |
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