There's a saying in politics: No campaign is ever as good as it looks when it's winning nor as bad as it looks when it's losing. In Mitt Romney's comments on Libya, you see part of the reason why.
A few months ago, the Romney campaign had a clear theory of the campaign: Keep the focus on the economy. When other issues came up, they had a clear strategy for dealing with them: Acknowledge them, issue some restrained comment, and then, if possible, end by saying we need to remain focused on the economy. Everything was about Romney campaign's Prime Directive: It's the economy, stupid.
That Romney campaign would have known just what to do on Libya. A simple, restrained statement condemning the murderers and expressing sympathy and solidarity with the victims. A few lines on Romney's resolve to hunt murderers like these down. Make Romney look presidential, but whatever you do, don't interrupt the underlying dynamics of the election. This is, by and large, the template that other major Republicans followed in their responses to the attacks.
President Obama, after all, has a wide lead in the polls on who is better at handling foreign policy and terrorism. If the campaign turns to those issues, that might well help Obama. Which gets to the corollary of the Prime Directive: If the election isn't about the economy, then Obama might win, stupid.
But the underlying dynamics of of the election are no longer seen as helping Romney. He trails Obama in the polls, and has for basically the entire campaign. He received little-to-no bump from his convention, and then watched Obama enjoy a significant bounce out of his. The economy isn't proving sufficient to beat Obama. That means the Romney campaign's strategy isn't proving sufficient to beat Obama.
When campaigns are losing, they get desperate. And when they get desperate, they make riskier political decisions. And so, Tuesday night, the Romney campaign made a risky decision. They released this statement:
I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.
Wednesday morning, given a chance to walk it all back as the full details of the attack revealed themselves, the Romney campaign doubled down on that statement, making clear that it was not a mistake.
The Romney campaign isn't run by amateurs. They knew this statement was incendiary. And, presumably, they knew it was wrong. It conflates a statement from a staffer in the Egyptian Embassy, who was trying to calm a potential mob, with the Obama administration. It conflates unrest in Egypt with the murder of American diplomat, among others, in Libya. And it accuses the Obama administration of something that they not only didn't do, but that would have been horrific of them to do: To sympathize with terrorists who had just murdered one of their ambassadors.
The backlash has been brutal. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg called Romney's statement a "slander." Time's Mark Halperin tweeted that it was the "most craven+ill-advised move of '12." Josh Marshall wrote that it was "reminiscent of John McCain’s rash call four years ago to cancel the presidential debates and the campaign itself to deal with the unfolding economic crisis."
Romney's comments were, to be sure, unusually noxious and indecent. But this is also what happens when campaigns get desperate. Like a gambler who's already lost too much, they begin taking risks in the hope of making it all back. And then, more often than not, they pay the price.
Correction: This post originally said the initial statement from the Egyptian Embassy came in the form of a tweet. It was a press release. I apologize for the error, and the text has been corrected.