Will Mitt Romney look back on this day as the blunder that doomed his campaign?
It's too soon to tell, of course. But the reaction to his recent foreign-policy moves has been overwhelmingly negative, from Republicans and Democrats alike, to the point that some wonder whether it could begin to disqualify him in voters' minds.
Romney's response to the incidents of the past 24 hours--the storming of the American embassy in Cairo and the killing of the American ambassador and three others in Libya--is widely being regarded as hasty and ham-handed. From his initial statement late Tuesday, which accused the Obama administration of "sympathizing with those who waged the attacks," to his Wednesday morning press conference reinforcing that criticism, Romney, critics say, appeared overly eager to turn the tragedy into a political wedge and insufficiently respectful of the gravity of the situation.
"I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said at a news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., some 12 hours after his initial statement. "When our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation."
As Romney himself noted moments later, this is a presidential campaign, and everything is fair game, especially when events provide the candidates with opportunities to air their honest differences in ways that can be illuminating to the electorate. But his comments struck a sour note in light of the fact that the U.S. Embassy's statement in Egypt condemning those who would attempt "to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" had long since been disavowed by the administration.
Romney was undeterred, saying the president is responsible for statements from embassies and that the White House's distancing itself from the statement only "reflected the mixed signals they're sending to the world." It seemed no matter what the administration did, Romney would find fault with it, and his fixation on doing so seemed to overshadow his stated concern for the lives lost in the attacks. (The Romney campaign's rationale for the tough tone was that it needed to seize the offensive on a pressing national issue.)
The pundits' judgment was harsh. Time's Mark Halperin said that Romney's "doubling down on criticism of the president for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign." A senior Republican told BuzzFeed's Ben Smith it was Romney's "Lehman moment," a reference to 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain's hasty reaction to the financial crisis--a turning point in the last presidential campaign. Conservative pundit Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Caller, "The problem with Mitt Romney continues to be Mitt Romney," comparing his reaction to the way Michael Dukakis was parodied as "weak and passionless" on Saturday Night Live. On Fox News, conservative commentator and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said, "In times of great drama and heightened crisis ... I always think discretion is the better way to go," saying Romney was leaving himself open to accusations of politicizing a tragedy. "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours," she said. Though Romney had his defenders as well, the gelling consensus was clearly against him.
Foreign policy has always been a tough spot for Romney. He has to contend with both Obama's perceived strength on the issue--58 percent approve of the president's handling of terrorism, according to Gallup--and his own party's internal divisions on international affairs. His stances on foreign issues have frequently been muddled, from his shifting position on Libya to his sometimes confusing criticism of the administration's Afghanistan policy.
Romney would prefer to downplay foreign policy and focus on the economy instead, but Democrats have already shown they're not going to let him: Witness John Kerry's brutal speech at last week's Democratic convention, in which he called Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan "the most inexperienced foreign-policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades." Or look at the attacks that Democrats have recently mounted over Romney's failure to mention Afghanistan during his Republican convention address--and his clumsy response, in a Fox News interview: "You talk about the things that you think are important."
Romney's Libya blunder might be just a blip, a single news cycle lost in a campaign that still has nearly two months to go and will surely refocus on the economy before long. There's also the possibility that further developments overseas reflect badly on the administration and somehow make Romney's critique look prescient rather than crass.
But if today's events turn into a bigger problem for Romney, it will be because they fit neatly into a damning narrative that was already under construction: that Romney's inexperience and incoherence on foreign affairs make him unfit for the office he is seeking. Like Dukakis before him, who looked so implausible posed in a helmet and tank that the believability of his whole campaign was deflated, the peril for Romney is that voters may decide he doesn't pass the commander-in-chief test.