Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Republican… (Jim Lo Scalzo / European…)
Mitt Romney’s team doubtless hopes the scenes of violent upheaval in the Muslim world will accrue in their candidate’s favor. The Arab world’s gone topsy-turvy again and President Obama can’t fix it — the thought might go — so it must be time to try the other guy.
But the Republican presidential nominee is learning today in foreign affairs — as he has learned for weeks on the domestic ledger — that you can’t be just another choice, you have to be a better choice.
Romney has struggled to persuade enough Americans he is the preferable steward of America's economy. Now, with his uneven reaction to the attacks on U.S. installations in Libya and Egypt, he’s muddled the path toward showing himself as the steady hand who would better tame a ferociously complex world.
The air of inconstancy about Romney grew again Friday after he did an interview on “Good Morning America.” The candidate again took up the issue of Libya and seemingly embraced the very position — a sharp critique of an anti-Muslim video — that he had blasted just 48 hours earlier as an apologia to extremists.
"And the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out in a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong," Romney said of the video. "And I wish people wouldn’t do it. Of course, we have a 1st Amendment. And under the 1st Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do. They have the right to do that, but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film."
He went on to criticize the Rev. Terry Jones, the extremist pastor who has promoted the video that provoked riots and attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in multiple nations. The mob that stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. “It’s a very bad thing, I think, this guy’s doing,” Romney said of Jones.
None of that seemed so terribly different from the statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday. Its press release said the U.S. "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. " It added, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Yet Romney jumped on that statement by mid-level diplomats, responding to events on the fly, to say the Obama administration’s “first response” was to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” As has been amply noted already, he was off base for multiple reasons: The embassy issued the statement hours before the attack; it came from diplomatic personnel in the field, far from the White House; it declared no “apology” for American values or sympathy for the extremists, as Romney claimed.
The flailing nature of the critique was not lost even on Romney sympathizers, like Republican grandees John Sununu and Peggy Noonan. They wished very publicly that the onetime private equity magnate who now is their party’s White House hope had appeared more measured in a time of national crisis.
It’s not like there is no room for second-guessing what’s happening around North Africa and the Mideast. A good starting point might have been for Romney to ask what the Obama administration has done to protect our consulates and embassies, and the diplomats who serve in them. Recommendation: Don't challenge the status quo unless you are ready to propose a better alternative.
Instead, Romney now offers (at least as of Friday morning) the same kinds of critiques of the noxious C-grade video that State Department employees offered earlier in the week. The diplomats were trying to head off potentially dangerous mobs when they spoke out. Romney's moment of clarity came only when fending off a pesky journalist.
The Republican who wants the Oval Office has seen again that — as much as his side might crave it — the election is not simply a referendum on the Obama administration. It’s a choice between Obama and Romney.
And the latest television image voters will have is of Romney staggering to reach equilibrium on the Libya tragedy, while President Obama visits Andrews Air Force Base. He is scheduled to receive the bodies of the fallen heroes, who died trying to prop up democracy half a world away.
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