Once again we get a lesson on the frailness of conventional media and pundit wisdom — even the conventional wisdom that may be prevailing as you read this. Just as the press was filled with stories of the flailing campaign of Republican nominee Mitt Romney and how worried conservatives were urging Romney to be more specific and aggressive, amid signs of a major poll “bump” for Presidential Barack Obama, three Middle East related foreign events reminded everyone of how unforseen events can inject into a campaign.
In political terms, it’s how campaigns respond and counter respond that may have an impact on the voting in November. The three events:
2. Attacks by Islamists on U.S. Embassies in Libya and Egypt.
3. The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the attack by Muslim protesters on the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi.
Already the three events — but particularly the events in Egypt and Libya — are entering the political realm on a week when polling showed Obama with a lopsided lead over Romney when voters are asked to rate the two candidates on foreign affairs. GOPers see a chance to change that and go on the offense in a campaign when several of their tested themes are not sticking.
NBC News’s First Read, as usual, puts it into perspective as the issue moves like lightning into the realm of partisanship:
*** Over the top : Yesterday we noted that Mitt Romney, down in the polls after the convention, was throwing the kitchen sink at President Obama. Little did we know the kitchen sink would include — on the anniversary of 9/11 — one of the most over-the-top and (it turns out) incorrect attacks of the general-election campaign . Last night after 10:00 pm ET, Romney released a statement on the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya. After saying he was “outraged” by these attacks and the death of an American consulate worker, Romney said, “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.” Yet after learning every piece of new information about those attacks, the Romney statement looks worse and worse — and simply off-key. First, Romney was referring to a statement that the U.S. embassy in Egypt issued condemning the “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” But that embassy statement, which the White House has distanced itself from, was in reference to an anti-Islam movie and anti-Islam pastor Terry Jones, and it came out BEFORE the embassy attacks began. Then this morning, we learned that the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and others died in one of the attacks.
But such details will matter little in 21st century American politics. The original Romney statement — versus those little details pointed out by First Read — is what you’ll see and hear on cable and radio talk radio and on many ideological opinion websites. Politics is now all about picking up a line and repeating it. As a campaign strategist of one campaign and a blogger on one website noted: who cares about factcheckers?
First Read adds this as well:
*** When news-cycle campaigning goes awry: Bottom line: This was news-cycle campaigning by the Romney campaign gone awry. Why didn’t the Romney campaign wait until it had all the facts? On his overseas trip in the summer, Romney was so careful not to criticize Obama while on foreign soil. But how much time do you give an administration to work through a diplomatic and international crisis before trying to score immediate political points? You’d expect the Sarah Palins of the world to quickly pounce on something like this, and she predictably did. But a presidential nominee running for the highest office in the land? After the facts have come out, last night’s Romney statement only feeds the narrative that his campaign is desperate. And given that the Romney camp has already moved on to other subjects this morning — issuing a press release on debt and not the embassy attacks — it appears the campaign realizes it, too. Right before our publication time, the Romney camp responds to us that it stands by its statement from last night. The controversial embassy statement, the Romney camp argues, had occurred AFTER the unrest in Egypt and Libya had already begun (citing this CBS report) and that the statement had served as the administration’s sole response until about 10:00 pm ET.
And, indeed, Romney surrogate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been quick to pick up the rhetorical ball and run with it. CNN sent out an email announcing: “Newt Gingrich suggests a connection between Libya and Egypt uprisings and attacks and backs Mitt Romney’s statement yesterday that said President Obama sympathized with attackers before condemning the events”. The key quote:
Gingrich says, “This is not just about Libya. You don’t get, simultaneously, attacks in Benghazi and Cairo, in Libya and Egypt on a purely local basis. And you don’t get them on 9/11, a day we’re already honoring terrorist attacks against the United States, without a fair amount of collusion and a fair amount of planning. I think you have to look at this in a larger context…. There’s a substantial faction, particularly in Benghazi, which was sending people to Iraq to kill Americans. There’s a substantial faction in Egypt which wants to defeat the United States and destroy Israel. That faction looks for opportunities to do things to hurt the United States and yesterday was the example of an attack that’s part of a very long war that we’re going to be at for a very long time.”
CNN Anchor John Berman asks if Gingrich has proof of there being a connection between demonstrations and attacks in Egypt and Libya. Gingrich replies, “…. Anybody who’s ever studied terrorism will tell you, there’s almost certainly a link. This is a lot like the Danish cartoon outrage a few years ago…. We are faced with enemies who want to defeat the United States and impose their radical views…. How can the US government apologize for a film no one has seen, which is what the Embassy in Cairo did yesterday…. It’s not just about an event in Libya. It’s about a longer war, part of which we were being reminded of yesterday on 9/11.”
View it for yourself:
Unless the Romney campaign has gamed this crisis out in some manner completely invisible to the Gang of 500, his 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.
The death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya in a rocket attack on Tuesday almost immediately turned into a major skirmish between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and President Obama, a reflection of a highly polarized election where every event is gamed for political advantage.
First in a statement late Tuesday and then in a hastily-organized press conference on Wednesday morning in Florida, Romney sought to cast the incident as an example of the mixed messaging and flawed foreign policy approach of the Obama Administration — seizing on the fact that the American embassy in Cairo, where there had also been protests on Tuesday, had released a statement condemning “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” (That statement was issued in response to attacks on their compound and came well before the Libya attack.)
How did Obama actually react?
President Obama on Wednesday strongly condemned “in the strongest terms” an “outrageous and shocking” attack in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other staffers.
Speaking in the Rose Garden beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama vowed to work with the Libyan government to “bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” Obama said. “Today, we mourn for more Americans that represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waiver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.
“Make no mistake,” Obama said, “justice will be done.”
The attack occurred after an angry mob swarmed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and set it ablaze. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, two security officials and a consulate worker died of suffocation as they were trying to evacuate the building.
And earlier:CBS News:
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” President Obama said in a written statement released Wednesday morning. The U.S. government had confirmed one American death on Tuesday.
President Obama said he had ordered heightened security at all U.S. diplomatic offices around the world in the wake of the attack in Benghazi and a similar but less violent incident in Cairo on Tuesday. Both incidents were sparked by hardline Muslims protesting a film made in the U.S. which insults the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Military officials told CBS News an anti-terrorism team of U.S. Marines was being deployed to Libya to help secure U.S. interests in the country following the attack. The State Department said, however, that no Americans were remaining at the facility in Benghazi. State officials would not confirm how many Americans were evacuated, or to where.
Romney’s original response has been already criticized — by former Bush-Cheney strategist Matt Dowd:
Mitt Romney’s criticism of the Obama administration’s reaction to the attacks in Libya is attracting widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum. But perhaps one of the sharpest rebukes was tweeted by Matthew Dowd, a top strategist of the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign.
“Romney react feels a lot like ready, fire, aim,” Dowd tweeted.
Just moments before he declared: “Downside to rapid response and instant war rooms in campaigns, Romney react on Libya events. Need more pauses and thoughtfulness.”
Dowd capped the series of tweets by saying: “if by leading you mean don’t wait on facts and just throw accusations then your right, he led.”
But, indeed, in the present configuration of American politics this is indeed seen by some partisans as leadership and “real” substantive campaigning. Just sift through some of these reactions of ideological websites on memeorandum and see what you think.
Here’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s full statement:
“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.
This evening, I called Libyan President Magariaf to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. President Magariaf expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation.
Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.
In light of the events of today, the United States government is working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide.”
Meanwhile, Romney is sticking by his campaign’s statement. And why shouldn’t he? He’ll be cheered on today by radio and cable talk radio hosts and some media partisans who won’t go into the little details First Read mentioned or agree with Dowd. The point is to attack, not discuss or offer a calm explanation of how it should have been handled differently. It’s all about chest beating — so get ready to hear more of it.
Can new details emerge that shows the Obama administration did not handle this correctly? Possibly, but as of this writing they don’t exist.
Mitt Romney on Wednesday stood by a statement issued by his campaign criticizing the Obama Administration over their handling of violent protests at American diplomatic missions in the Middle East, saying “President Obama has demonstrated a lack of clarity as to a foreign policy.”
“I also believe 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 attacks on americans and defend our values.”
Romney was referring to a statement issued by his campaign Tuesday night after initial reports emerged that one diplomatic staff member had been killed in Libya. It was later confirmed that four Americans had lost their life, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
In his must-read political book “The Candidate,” political scientist Samuel Popkin notes that a winning campaign is often determined not by what’s scripted or anticipated but how nimbly they can react to breaking events and how it defines them.
In the midst of personal tragedy, the question will become: in the end, how will each campaign handle these events and how will the perceptions of how they reacted define them in the minds of voters — especially those voters who already have a definition of each side and don’t intend to change it?
Wall Street Journalist Peggy Noonan did not seem pleased with Romney’s response:
Buzzfeed reports that there are signs that Romney’s response has backfired:
Mitt Romney’s sharply-worded attack on President Obama over a pair of deadly riots in Muslim countries last night has backfired badly among foreign policy hands of both parties, who cast it as hasty and off-key, released before the facts were clear at what has become a moment of tragedy.
Romney keyed his statement to the American Embassy in Cairo’s condemnation of an anti-Muslim video that served as the trigger for the latest in a series of regional riots over obscure perceived slights to the faith. But his statement — initially embargoed to avoid release on September 11, then released yesterday evening anyway — came just before news that the American Ambassador to Libya had been killed and broke with a tradition of unity around national tragedies, and of avoiding hasty statements on foreign policy. It was the second time Romney has been burned by an early statement on a complex crisis: Romney denounced the Obama Administration’s handling of a Chinese dissident’s escape just as the Administration negotiated behind the scenes for his departure from the country.
“They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up,” said a very senior Republican foreign policy hand, who called the statement an “utter disaster” and a “Lehman moment” — a parallel to the moment when John McCain, amid the 2008 financial crisis, failed to come across as a steady leader.
He and other members of both parties cited the Romney campaign’s recent dismissals of foreign policy’s relevance. One adviser dismissed the subject to BuzzFeed as a “shiny object,” while another told Politico that the subject was the “president’s turf,” drawing a rebuke from Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
“I guess we see now that it is because they’re incompetent at talking effectively about foreign policy,” said the Republican. “This is just unbelievable — when they decide to play on it they completely bungle it.”
Romney has not backed off the response.
Read Poplin’s book. Will this prove to have countered or added to the emerging narrative of Romney’s campaign as a hapless, clumsily run operation?
UPDATE: Another BIG sign Romney’s comments have backfired. NBC’s Chuck Todd calls Romney’s statement “outrageous” and says he was “stunned” — and contends the Romnney campaign seems to be inching away from the subject now
And CNN reports that the Romney camp is sending out instructions on how to manage the issue (a sign that they realize they may have stepped in it):
Facing criticism for its aggressive and politically-charged response to Tuesday’s violent attacks on the American embassies in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is quietly advising Republicans how to respond to questions about the campaign’s handling of the episode.
In talking points currently being pushed to Republican leaders and top surrogates, the Romney campaign recommends attacking President’s Obama “foreign policy of weakness” and dismissing questions about how the campaign responded to the crisis last night.
A sample response, as proposed by the Romney campaign officials in Boston:
“Did Governor Romney ‘jump the gun’ last night in releasing his statement?”
“No. It is never too soon to stand up for American values and interests.”
Read the full list of message points from the Romney campaign, provided to CNN by a GOP source, below:
MESSAGE POINTS: Attacks On America’s Diplomatic Missions In Libya And Egypt
Surrogate Message Points: Attacks On America’s Diplomatic Missions In Libya And Egypt
– We join all Americans in grieving for the four American patriots who lost their lives in yesterday’s attacks and send our condolences to their loved ones.
– This is a time for America to be firm and resolute – and to make clear beyond any doubt that America will not tolerate attacks on our own.
– The violence against the American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt underscores that the world remains a dangerous place and that American leadership is sorely needed.
– Over the last several years, we have stood witness to an Arab Spring that presents both opportunity for a more peaceful and prosperous region, but also great peril if the forces of extremism and violence are allowed to control the course of events.
Go to the link to read the rest.
Or just turn on Sean Hannity tonight to hear him deliver them…
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED THIS POLITICAL SEASON (to be reviewed next week on TMV):
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.