October 22nd, 2012
11:30 PM ET
10 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 His assertion that 313 ships are required for a fully operational Navy uses an outdated figure – Navy Secretary Ray Mabus dropped the number to 300 ships in April.

Mabus has also pushed back on criticism of the Navy's strength compared to 1917, saying it's an outdated way of looking at American defense strategy.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

[tweet https://twitter.com/EricCantor/status/260578439789154305%5D

[tweet https://twitter.com/EWErickson/status/260594888280776704%5D

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. Missy

    President obama did say we didnt use them any more he said we use fewer due to the fact that we have better technology...i mean thats common sense

    October 23, 2012 12:43 am at 12:43 am |
  2. AverageBear

    Obama said we have "fewer" horses and bayonets – he didn't say we didn't have any.

    Please folks, read and listen carefully, otherwise your vote is wasted.

    October 23, 2012 12:47 am at 12:47 am |
  3. JGM

    Big Bird, binders and bayonets. Any president who centers a campaign around this kind of juvenile stuff is not winning, and he knows it.

    October 23, 2012 12:51 am at 12:51 am |
  4. zaggs

    I wish the President of the United States knew something about the US navy. Aircraft carriers (the ships planes land on) are big friggin targets and have diminished capacity for protecting themselves against cruise missiles and submerged targets. Thats why you need missile cruisers and frigates to accompany them.

    October 23, 2012 12:53 am at 12:53 am |
  5. roewedge

    This is silly. In the Air Force there are older equipment and parts to maintain that is starting to cost a lot. It creates logistics problems and extends the amount of time older aircraft are down for maintenance. If we cut those out we would be a bit more mobile and responsive to situations. Whereas right now we have to face a lag time.

    When it comes to naval ships, slower and older tech ships place a burden on a fleets mobility and repair/refueling costs? For instance I know that battleships are completely obsolete nowadays when compared to newer tech frigates. Having a leaner and updated Navy is a more efficient way to go in projecting power/force. Combat is evolved and in machine vs machine combat you want the technological advantage. This doesn't phase out the shipyards. In fact those shipyards are used to bring certain ships up to date.

    October 23, 2012 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  6. Luke

    In order to try and stifle the people rallying behind the bayonet: The President did not say we no longer use bayonets. He said we have less of them. Which is true. He was suggesting that size and numbers don't necessarily matter when considering what makes our military strong and efficient; don't quantify military strength by sheer numbers.

    October 23, 2012 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  7. Tex71

    "Horses and bayonets" will become a politico-historical meme after the fashion of "You're no Jack Kennedy" and "potatoe". Why is it always Republicans who come out worse in these things? Maybe that's the karma of trying to destroy public education.

    October 23, 2012 12:57 am at 12:57 am |
  8. Anonymous

    By virtue of the fact that Romney agreed with nearly three quarters of what Obama was saying one has to assume that Obama won the debate by a landslide. To suggest otherwise is pure nonsense. Romney had NO CLUE what he was talking about and it showed. But, hey. Who am I to argue with the media pundits who get their talking points directly from Romney?

    October 23, 2012 12:58 am at 12:58 am |
  9. southernwonder

    obama spoke the truth about battleships. now, if the romney guys are going to make it a campaign issue to manufacture ships that the navy has not asked for and are not needed for our defense needs, then romney is no different from those who were building bridges to nowhere in alaska. clearly, romney is creating govt waste, proving one more time that he is all over the map all the time, his coldwar self unsure in the modern hitech world we now live in. really romney looks and talks out of step. i hope he is not coming down with something mental.

    October 23, 2012 12:59 am at 12:59 am |
  10. Manny

    Hey "politically correct" you need to go back to your history class. The US has not used battleships to protect aircraft carriers since WWII and even then they were obsolete death traps as demonstrated at Pearl Harbor... today's aircraft carrier groups are protected by "ships that go underwater," they're called nuclear attack submarines, and by AAW/ASW frigates (currently Oliver Hazard Perry), destroyers (currently Arleigh Burke class), and cruisers (currently Ticonderoga) built from the early '80s to '90s. Post WWII battleships were used mainly as shore bombardment platforms as their were sitting ducks for both aircraft and submarine attacks...

    October 23, 2012 01:01 am at 1:01 am |
  11. Lysette

    Hate to say it to the folks who like building ships, but when you can fly to anywhere in the world from the USA you don't need new ships. You might want more long range refuelling aircraft and next generation drones, but welcome to the 21st Century – if the carrier groups the US has right now are not enough it means someone is dropping tactical nukes. Remember even back in WW2 someone made the point that aircraft carriers were nice, but islands were so much better because you can't sink an island. If you get the international politics right so you have airfields all the places you want them, then you don't need more carriers – which as zaggs correctly points out are vulnerable to 21st Century weapons that other nations now have too.

    October 23, 2012 01:03 am at 1:03 am |
  12. Joe

    To suggest that our capabilities have not developed to a point where we can reduce the number of soldiers in harms way and fight more efficiently is an insult to the leadership on the armed forces, the industries that developed and manufactured the weaponry and the commient of the nation to be a super power and exercise frugality in the expenditure of human life. That is what is an insult.

    October 23, 2012 01:06 am at 1:06 am |
  13. Downrange

    The Current Commander in Chief didn't know the difference between a National Security Threat and a GEO Political Threat. He talked about his support for vets, but has cut VA budgets, raised veterans medical costs and raised military family medical costs! I'm done with Chicago politics and lack of leadership for the greatest nation!

    October 23, 2012 01:07 am at 1:07 am |
  14. 2020

    The debate is not much of debate. Obama knocked Romney out even half round.

    Romney mumble jumble not knowing what he agreed or disagreed with Obama. At the end Romney just repeat everything Obama had said, like a tape recorder. Romney has nothing to say for himself.

    It is said to have someone wanting to be the president, and world leader but know nothing about the world.

    Romney will never be respected by the world or in the country.

    I won't trust Romney with a dog, never mind human lives.

    October 23, 2012 01:07 am at 1:07 am |
  15. mk1

    Two points to make in the most forceful of ways. First, as for the Navy, one ship today can accomplish the mission of nearly ten ships from WWI, thus we don't need equivalent numbers by any stretch of the imagination.
    Second, on a different yet related topic, tanks. We have over 2,000 M1 tanks unused sitting in the desert from either overproduction or in need of repair. We do not need more tank production which some members of congress are pushing for.

    October 23, 2012 01:09 am at 1:09 am |
  16. Carol Fairweather

    Romney wants peace in the world not war...so building more ships is just moot!!

    Obama/Biden 2012!!

    October 23, 2012 01:09 am at 1:09 am |
  17. Shelly

    Gotta love it when cool heads prevail....Especially when it comes to foreign policy. Romney wins this one because he didn't take the bait and come off as a warmonger like Obama had hoped. Perhaps Obama wins points for being forceful and combative but I don't think Obama's "debate points" will equal more votes for him. The momentum towards Romney will continue because it's all about the economy, just like in 2008, and frankly, Obama's economy stinks.

    October 23, 2012 01:14 am at 1:14 am |
  18. Downrange

    Carol, how do you create Force Projection to maintain the peace with an obsolete Navy?

    October 23, 2012 01:16 am at 1:16 am |
  19. demrules

    There goes the GOP whining! Smart people could follow the dialogue, and we think think it's funny as all get out and true! The President kicked Romney's whiny Navy theory to the curb!

    October 23, 2012 01:18 am at 1:18 am |
  20. stranger in an increasingly strange land

    Prior to my retirement I spent 40 years wokrking on military aircraft. It is now possible for one airplane to carry more effective bombload than the entire amount used during WWII. So Romney adding more carriers and destroyers and subs against people who live in mud huts does seem to be like like using a 500 pound bomb to kill a mouse. You will probably get the mouse but the collateral damage is going to be substantial.

    October 23, 2012 01:18 am at 1:18 am |
  21. medschoolkid

    Romney is not asking for battleships. Anyone who thinks so is vastly ill informed and did not watch the debate. He is trying to maintain our naval strength which is key to national defense and maintaining trade around the world. Romney is surprisingly more educated about foreign policy than most people understand. Russia is our number one geopolitical foe. Please go ask someone in a foreign policy think tank, they will agree. Obama is good at pandering to the undereducated masses and it has worked in the past. He says what the people want to hear and they like it. Mitt talks about the real issues and its over many peoples heads so they say he is a liar and he doesn't know anything. Don't get frustrated because he talks over your head. He is very intelligent and knows exactly what he is doing.

    October 23, 2012 01:23 am at 1:23 am |
  22. dean

    Political attacks by the Romney team won't help build more ships in Virginia. Modern warfare puts naval vessels at great risk. If you don't understand that you are completely lost.

    October 23, 2012 01:33 am at 1:33 am |
  23. Waleed75

    It is difficult to argue against those who hate for no other reason but because they want to hate the president (Hmmm, I wonder why). The president could make a very clear and intelligent statement about not needing things of the past because we are more modern, and of course, the hate in Republicans propels them to read these statements as an attack on ship builders, or a statement against that one marine with a bayonet. The president could possibly say "buckle up kids" and bigots of every kind will say "this socialist president is against our freedoms". So, therefore it really does not matter what this president says, because the hate is so strong and palpable that even the most intelligent comment about us not needing old technology because of the new can make the hateful become less intelligent.

    October 23, 2012 01:34 am at 1:34 am |
  24. James

    On the bayonet topic, our President is mis-informed. My brother is a Marine, and he has told me (more like corrected me) that they still train with bayonets. He has also told me that they have a stockpile to issue to every Marine.

    October 23, 2012 01:35 am at 1:35 am |
  25. Chuck

    The President doesn't even know what a Navy "CORPSE" Man is, and he is lecturing on the Navy haha

    PS every soldier and marine is issued a Bayonett, i would say we still need them

    October 23, 2012 01:38 am at 1:38 am |
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