Mitt Romney just held a press availability about the attacks in Libya and Egypt and the death of the U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens. Remarkably, Romney doubled down on his claim that the Obama administration “sympathized” with the attackers.
“The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our Embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions,” Romney said. “It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn acts on Americans and to defend our values.”
Romney repeatedly invoked the word “apology,” hearkening back to his regular accusation that Obama has “apologized” for America. “An apology for America’s values is never the right course,” Romney said.
My bet is that a lot of this has to do with the recent criticism from the right the Romney campaign has endured for supposedly not being tough enough with its attacks on Obama. Some conservative commentators have suggested that Romney has retreated to a more cautious mode after the Paul Ryan pick. The claim that Obama “apologized” for America is just the sort of thing these critics want to hear more of; hence last night’s attack and today’s doubling down on it.
But this press conference looks to me like a serious mistake on Romney’s part. The whole thing reeked of political opportunism and didn’t convey any sense of leadership or reassurance amid a crisis. It was also somewhat incoherent. At one point, Romney defended his reaction by noting that the White House, too, had also condemned the U.S embassy’s statement, claiming: “I had the exact same reaction.” Okay, so Romney is criticizing the Obama administration while simultaneously agreeing with it?
Romney is arguing that the administration at first took an objectionable stance. But the statement in question was put out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, at a moment when it was bracing for trouble. No one except for confirmed Obama haters will buy the notion that the Obama administration sympathized with the attacks. And yet here Romney is at a hastily convened press conference, at a time when four Americans were murdered, doubling down on that exact charge.
This kind of thing will thrill the base, but will it really resonate with undecided and persuadable voters? The new Washington Post poll finds Obama holds an overwhelming 51-38 advantage over Romney on who is more trusted to handle international affairs. Does the Romney camp really think that raising the “apology” canard yet again in this context is a good strategy? Tellingly, no other GOP leaders criticized the Obama administration today, leaving Romney isolated.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with criticizing the president at a time of crisis or with raising substantive questions about Obama’s handling of the Arab spring. All that is legitimate fodder for the presidential race. No doubt Obama will face some tough questions in the days ahead; I would have liked to see more from him today. But, if anything, the crassness of Romney’s response will do more to overshadow whatever substantive arguments he hopes to make about these matters than it will do to advance them. Romney’s defenders will argue that in an election that will turn heavily on the economy, this misstep won’t matter to voters. But it will infect the media narrative; many commentators are already calling it a serious mistake, and this is the kind of thing that can lead to a real shift in tone in the coverage and a drop in the amount of credibility accorded to a campaign.
I would not go as far as some have gone in suggesting that this is a sign of desperation on Romney's part or that it is akin to John McCain’s disastrous suspension of his campaign in 2008. There is a long way to go, the economy is still dominant, and this race still could tip either way. But this does not look like the behavior of a campaign that thinks it’s winning.