Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mitt's McCain Moment

Mitt Romney's widely panned response to the killing of our Ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi has been compared to John McCain's reaction to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers almost four years ago to the day and during the height of our last Presidential campaign. Back then, McCain's response was called erratic, as he toggled between "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" to suspending his campaign and musing about whether he would show up to the first Presidential debate. He called for a summit at the White House with leaders of both parties and then, by all accounts, remained largely quiet as then-Senator Obama dominated the meeting.  The end result was damning. The supposedly inexperienced 47 year old Obama looked calm, responsible and reassuring. McCain, 72, who had served in Congress since 1983, came off as unsteady, uncertain and not in command of the facts.  

Pundits often look to the Lehman crisis as the turning point in 2008 that led to Obama's victory; however, they tend to focus on the bankruptcy and not McCain's response as the reason the electorate shifted.  This is a mistake. The Lehman experience was a "3 A.M. phone call" that allowed voters to gauge each party's candidate in real time during an actual crisis. What is happening in Libya and Egypt right now is that same phone call, and it is yielding the same result for the GOP's standard bearer. The big difference this year is that the American people have been led for the past four years by Obama, have seen him exercise grace under pressure, whether it was clipping four Somali pirates just weeks into his Presidency, navigating the treacherous waters of economic recovery, or ordering the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The President is cool under fire, keeps his wits about him and doesn't go off half-cocked. 

Given the opportunity to audition for the role of Commander-in-Chief, Mitt Romney appears not to have even dusted off Foreign Policy For Dummies (h/t @donjuanw). His first attempt, a cream puff tour of major U.S. allies this summer was a complete disaster (see my earlier entry, "Mitt's Not So Excellent Adventure: but not dangerous to American interests. Sure, he said some intemperate things to the Olympic hosts in England and suggested Israelis were in some way superior to Palestinians and his traveling press aide told a reporter to "kiss his ass," but these tempests in tea pots were, for better or worse, quickly forgotten in the sturm und drag of the Presidential campaign. 

Not so his reaction to the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others during an attack on our consulate in Benghazi.  First, the Romney campaign issued a scathing press release on 9/11 but "embargoed" it until 12:01 A.M. so as not to appear to be politicizing the commemoration of one of the darkest days in our nation's history. If that was not craven enough, they then lifted the embargo so the release actually went out on 9/11 but suffered the flaw of being wholly inaccurate, missing the timing of a press release issued by our Embassy in Egypt so as to make it appear that it had been issued after, not before, anything had occurred in Libya (that the press release was also done to try and cool tempers was lost entirely). 

By the following morning, when more facts, including the death of Ambassador Stevens, were available, the Romney team not only failed to correct its error, it sent its candidate out before the President of the United States, to "double down" on his falsehood, smirk his way through non-answers to reporters questions and absorb the ridicule and approbation of foreign policy experts from both parties at his ill-timed gestures and saber rattling response. All of this action  underscored the cheap politicization of what is now a legitimate foreign policy crisis. Romney's conduct was quickly processed through the lens of prior campaigns, where, for example, candidates from Reagan to Obama, when faced with similar incidents during their runs in 1980 and 2008, issued restrained, "there is only one President at a time" type comments that showed solidarity and support for our then commanders-in-chief.  

By the end of the day, Romney had been left out on a limb by his own party, notably the GOP leaders of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, "establishment" Republicans like Nicholas Burns and the mainstream media.  While he did garner some favorable press from the right wing rabble rousers who had been crushing his campaign just days before this incident occurred, the image Romney portrayed to the American people was bald faced political opportunism mixed with a "shoot first, aim later" strategy of making inflammatory statements without appreciating their consequences and an amateur's attempt at showing forcefulness when the end result was just the opposite. Instead of acting in a responsible and restrained manner that might have inspired confidence in a man with no foreign policy experience, the Romney folks tore a page out of McCain's 2008 playbook and got the same result - widespread ridicule and an electorate's fear that their man does not have the temperament to be President. 

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