The context of Mitt Romney’s immediate criticisms of the president over the events in Libya and Egypt last night — criticisms which foreign policy blogger Dan Larison summarizes as “hasty, stupid, and quickly proven wrong” and which Washington conventional wisdom also seems to have quickly turned against — is that they were the criticisms of a particular and unusual type of politician: the professional candidate.
I think this is something about Romney that’s not fully appreciated. Not only is his experience in government unusually limited for a presidential nominee, with just four years in any kind of elected office at all (nor any experience in other government posts, the way that George H.W. Bush had). But he’s also spent an unusual amount of time running for office, at least compared to the time he’s spent in office. Romney ran for the Senate and for governor, served as governor for four years, and since then has spent the past six years running for president.
Now, of course, incumbents run for reelection, too; Barack Obama started running for reelection on Election Day in 2008 and hasn’t stopped. But it’s a little different; elected officials, no matter how much they’re running for another office or to keep the one they have, aren’t really in the same position as candidates who don’t hold office.
There’s really no good comparison for Romney in modern times among major-party nominees. Barack Obama? Sure, he had unusually limited national government experience, but he had basically been an elected official for more than a decade. Ronald Reagan? Some similarities, but with eight years as a governor, not four. Jimmy Carter was at least in the ballpark. Still, it’s not really that close; Carter had four years in his state legislature in addition to one term as governor, and had four fewer years running for president.
One can never draw direct-line connections between a candidate’s background and a particular statement. So for all we know, it’s possible that any Republican nominee would have made similarly ill-advised comments. But the idea that attacking the opponent is always safe ground does seem to sit well with someone who has spent so many years as a candidate, and especially as a candidate for a Republican nomination, without tempering that experience with a little more experience as an elected official, where what you say may have implications beyond the next news cycle. Oddly enough, it may be that all of Romney’s experience and training as a professional candidate could be precisely what let him down this time.