Frank Rich on the National Circus: Romney’s Reckless Rebuke

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Photo: Charles Dharapak

Every week, New York Magazine assistant editor Eric Benson talks with columnist and writer-at-large Frank Rich about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: attacks on U.S. diplomats in North Africa and the Romney campaign’s response.

Last night, Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of sympathizing with the attackers who killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya. He was apparently referring to a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo that condemned the anti-Muslim movie that incited the violence. That statement, however, was issued hours before the Libyan attacks. Is Romney going to regret his sloppy response, or will this, regardless of the facts, mobilize his "no apology" base?

Here’s Romney’s language: “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.” The statement contains three major errors (or can we say lies?). Not only does it attribute an embassy statement to the Obama administration and falsify its timing, but it also ignores the administration’s actual “first response” to the Libyan violence (a sharp condemnation by Hillary Clinton). As if that weren’t bad enough for a single sentence, Romney also libels the president by accusing him of sympathizing with terrorists. Perhaps stuff like this will mobilize Romney’s base, but its Palin-esque, trigger-happy invective will drive away swing voters he supposedly covets. And keep in mind that Romney rushed to release this statement before the facts were even in — before we learned that the American ambassador and three others were killed in Libya. It’s hard to imagine how Romney’s statement could be more incendiary or tasteless in the tinder-box context of the moment. Even the right-wing blogger Erick Erickson tweeted that Romney should avoid this kind of bluster: “I think the Romney camp has to be very delicate in how it approaches this issue. Hard for partisans to see, but POTUS is POTUS.” If even a hothead like Erickson suggests that Romney is being reckless, you can see he now has blundered into yet another self-inflicted political mess.  

As Obama has risen in the polls over the past five days, prognosticators like Nate Silver said that he would be tough to beat barring a deepening of the economic slump or an "October surprise." Could an attack like this — and further unrest in the Arab world — be the October surprise? And will it actually affect Obama's reelection chances?

I hadn’t thought that international events would be a factor in the election, barring some truly apocalyptic development (which, to be crassly political about it, would probably rally Americans around the president). But now I’m not so sure. It seems that foreign policy is becoming a serious vulnerability for Romney and may well loom larger in the debates than expected. First, he bungles the easiest foreign mission in the diplomatic lexicon — a visit to our No. 1 ally, England, during the festive time of the Olympics. Then he fails to mention the war in Afghanistan during his convention acceptance speech and subsequently tries to rectify that gaffe by telling Fox News, “When you give a speech, you don’t go through a laundry list, you talk about the things you think are important.” (Yet another example of the kind of self-immolating Romney ad libs likely to surface in the debates.) And now this week’s fiasco. To quote another conservative writer, here’s how Daniel Larison of the American Conservative summed up Romney’s foreign policy in a blog written during the Republican convention: “Because Romney insists on attacking Obama for not being hawkish and aggressive enough, he has little that he can coherently criticize, and when he does genuinely differ from Obama he tends to take ridiculous and untenable positions.” That’s a wise summation and has been borne out again by Romney’s ridiculous and untenable position on the crisis this week.

On Monday, former Bush speechwriter (and current Washington Post columnist) Marc Thiessen wrote a piece criticizing Obama for missing more than half his daily intelligence briefings. Dick Cheney has already jumped on that report, do you expect Romney to make an issue of it?

Only at his peril. Thiessen is one of two unofficial Romney campaign surrogates unaccountably writing opinion at the Washington Post. (The other is Jennifer Rubin.) This piece, grading Obama’s foreign policy by his attendance record at briefings, could not have been more spectacularly ill-timed. It ran the day before the journalist Kurt Eichenwald, author of a highly acclaimed new account of the post-9/11 aftermath (500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars), published a piece on the Times op-ed page with new findings, gleaned from recently declassified intelligence reports, that President Bush and his top brass were even more negligent during the summer of 2001 than we had previously known. The Bushies discounted and ignored repeated and ever more apoplectic CIA intelligence briefs warning of an imminent Al Qaeda attack on America, largely because the Bush team was possessed by the belief that “Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat.” (Thiessen, then chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld, epitomized the Bush administration’s neoconservative mindset.) Let’s assume that Bush had a much better attendance record at intelligence briefings than Obama does. A lot of good that did for America. As we were painfully reminded again on this week’s anniversary of 9/11, those briefings are worthless if the president doesn’t understand or heed them. And while we’re at it, let’s remember one other point: Of the 24 special advisers on foreign policy to Romney, 17 are Bush-Cheney alumni who (like Thiessen) bear responsibility for some of the most catastrophic national security decisions in the history of the nation.

Before his Libya statement, Romney had actually been a little warmer toward Obama and his policies this week. On Sunday, he went on Meet the Press and said that he wouldn't repeal all of the Affordable Care Act after all. Romney isn't exactly beloved by conservatives for his record on health care. What was he thinking?

He was thinking, Must now fake a move to the center to pander to swing voters who like the idea that Obamacare will mandate coverage for preexisting conditions. He fooled no one, and in classic Etch a Sketch fashion, reversed himself within hours once he got some heat from his base. In Romney’s revised stance, the “marketplace,” not the federal government, will somehow bestow Americans coverage for preexisting illnesses. We’ve all seen how well that works out!

In the same Meet the Press interview, Romney lavished praise on Bill Clinton's convention address, saying that it "really did elevate the Democrat convention." Didn't Clinton spend almost all of his speech attacking Romney and his party?

Yes, but it’s become an article of faith on the right that the Clintons, whom conservatives once reviled as depraved criminals bringing the nation to ruin, are now the best thing going in the Democratic party. Why? Polls show both Clintons as being hugely popular, and of course the GOP wants to draw an implicit and critical comparison to Obama. So it didn’t matter what Clinton said in his (brilliant) convention speech. Romney was just trying (however haplessly) to appropriate some of the Clinton halo for himself. 

This weekend, it looked like Obama might see a significant post-convention bounce. The last two major polls show a one-point contest. Does any of this say anything important about the race?

I’d normally say no. It’s too early. Convention bounces fade. The debates await. But the Romney campaign wildly overreacted to the new numbers. Its own pollster, Neil Newhouse, lately notorious for his statement that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” sent out a hysterical memo minimizing the evidence of an Obama bounce. Seems like this guy has never met a fact he liked. In any case, the panicked tone suggested that the Romney campaign, at least, believes that Obama has started to pull ahead.