This is a bit off Wonkblog’s typical beat, but I’m honestly baffled by Mitt Romney these days. Here he is talking to George Stephanopoulos about the anti-Muslim video that’s sparked mob anger (or has at least been the stated excuse for mob anger) in the Arab world:
Mitt Romney: Well, I haven’t seen the film. I don’t intend to see it. I, you know, I think it’s dispiriting sometimes to see some of the awful things people say. And the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out in a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong. And I wish people wouldn’t do it. Of course, we have a First Amendment. And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do. They have the right to do that, but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film.
George Stephanopoulos: We’ve seen General Martin Dempsey call Pastor Jones to say, “Please don’t promote this film.” You think that’s a good idea?
Romney: I think the whole film is a terrible idea. I think him making it, promoting it, showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths. I don’t think that should happen. I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment – the good judgment – not to be, not to offend other peoples’ faiths. It’s a very bad thing, I think, this guy’s doing.
And here’s the original statement from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt that Romney considered an offensive example of the Obama administration sympathizing with those who would attack Americans (though note that at the time this statement was released, the attacks in Libya had not yet occurred):
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Perhaps I’m just dense, but I don’t really see the difference. Romney and the embassy are basically saying the same thing: There is a right to free speech in America, but that includes the right to dislike and condemn speech that is needlessly insulting to other religions — and both Romney and the Egyptian Embassy are exercising that right.
Moreover, unlike Romney, who made these comments while he was strolling down a wooded path with a television host, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt made these comments while trying to calm an angry mob. Insofar as you need an excuse to say that an insulting video is insulting, seems like they had a better one.
What confuses me about these comments, however, is why Romney made them at all. His campaign has chosen to double down on its original statement. Knowing that you were going to get this question, why not say something that fits more neatly with the message your campaign has been betting everything on for days now? Why not just say, and keep saying: “We here in America have the right to free speech, and there’s simply no excuse for responding to free speech with violence against diplomats who had nothing to do with the offending comments in the first place”?
Three months ago, everything that the Romney campaign said or did was, with the exception of occasional gaffes, perfectly understandable. That’s not been true more recently.