Will Mitt Romney's hasty response to the deadly attacks on the American diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya go down as the misstep that doomed his campaign to unseat President Barack Obama?
The Republican presidential candidate came under fire from Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday for politicizing the outbreak of deadly violence in the Middle East, including the breaching of the American Embassy in Cairo and an attack on the American Consulate in Libya, which claimed the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic workers.
Romney released a scathing statement on Tuesday night blasting the Obama administration for its "disgraceful" response to the attacks. The statement was at first embargoed until after midnight in order to avoid publicly criticizing Obama on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks but then was released anyway. In the statement, which came just hours before Stevens was confirmed to be among those killed, Romney suggested the White House had chosen to "sympathize with those who waged the attacks" instead of condemning the attackers.
Romney was referring to a statement issued by the American Embassy in Cairo condemning an obscure anti-Muslim YouTube video that had set off the demonstrations. But the embassy's statement had been an effort to head off the violence—not released after the assaults on American diplomatic missions, as Romney's statement suggested.
Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 campaign, told Yahoo News that Romney's decision to stand behind his initial criticism of Obama could damage his image with voters.
"For people who are running for president, this is a test where people evaluate their mettle as commander in chief, and the Romney campaign put out a statement before the facts were in that politicized the matter and gratuitously attacked the administration for something they did not do," Schmidt said. "The decision to double down on the initial mistake has put them into a potentially very dangerous political situation. During a foreign policy crisis, you can't build a position on a foundation of politics. … The situation remains serious, it's volatile and Romney is appearing to be very political."
The danger for Romney is that his response to the Middle East attacks feeds into a consensus among the news media that his campaign to unseat Obama is in serious trouble. For the fourth time in recent months, prominent conservatives have gone public with fretting over the direction of Romney's campaign—a panic set off most recently by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham's suggestion Monday that if Romney can't beat Obama then the Republican Party should be "shut down." On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board piled on, suggesting Romney could lose the election because he's been too vague when it comes to explaining his policies.
"Mistakes like this happen when a campaign begins to feel under pressure," Schmidt told Yahoo News. "The Democrats had a more successful convention, the president's opened up a lead in the polls, there's been a lot of criticism by conservative commentators about campaign strategy. … They acted too quickly, too rashly, too politically—looking obviously for a way to change the narrative, the dynamic in the race."
A senior Romney aide, who declined to be named, dismissed the idea that the Republican candidate had been damaged by his response to the attacks in Libya and Egypt. The aide insisted to Yahoo News that the election would likely come down to an "overall referendum" on Obama's performance in office—including on foreign policy and the economy. "'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' is the question that will determine the election," the Romney aide said.
Romney did not back off his criticism of the Obama administration Wednesday at a hastily arranged press conference in Florida. "It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney told reporters. "It's never too early for the U.S. government to condemn attacks on Americans and defend our values. ... When our grounds are being attacked, being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage."
It was an uncharacteristically aggressive stance from Romney, who has largely kept his campaign focused on the economy. And it was an offensive that was not matched by Romney's allies on Capitol Hill or within the foreign policy community—many of whom did not respond to requests from Yahoo News to comment on the record about Romney's response.
McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee who has not shied from criticizing Obama on foreign policy issues, did not mention the president in a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut on the attacks—choosing instead to condemn the attackers. Just before Romney took the mic at his press conference, McCain posted a message on Twitter praising a public statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying she had adopted the "right message and tone." Asked by Yahoo News whether he agrees with Romney's response, McCain's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has campaigned with Romney and spoke at the Republican National Convention that nominated Romney for president, also didn't embrace Romney's criticism against Obama—focusing her statement instead on the "tragic loss of life." A spokeswoman for Rice did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News about whether Rice agreed with Romney's response.
Romney did have defenders, including Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina—who issued a statement calling Romney's response "absolutely right"—and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who penned an op-ed declaring "Romney Is Right."
But their efforts were largely overshadowed by other members of Team Romney who didn't agree with the candidate's response. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told National Journal's Major Garrett that the campaign "probably should have waited" to issue its response. Meanwhile, Tom Ridge, a Romney ally who served as secretary of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush, disputed Romney's suggestion that Obama was sympathizing with the enemy. "I don't think President Obama sympathizes with those who attacked us," Ridge told the liberal site Think Progress. "I don't think any American does."
And plenty of anonymous Republicans immediately pounced, with one "very senior Republican foreign policy hand" telling BuzzFeed's Ben Smith it was Romney's "Lehman moment"—a reference to McCain's bungling of the looming financial crisis during the 2008 campaign.
Foreign policy has been a tricky issue for Romney. While he has sought to assume the advantage on the issue by playing up Obama's tense relationship with Israel and other American allies, he has come under criticism for his own murky foreign policy stances—including his position on the war in Afghanistan. Romney took an overseas trip in July that was meant to burnish his foreign policy credentials and cast himself as a statesman in the eyes of voters, but it was largely overshadowed by the candidate's verbal miscues. More recently, he came under criticism for failing to mention Afghanistan in his speech at the Republican National Convention—an oversight he sought to remedy on the 9/11 anniversary with a speech praising members of the military.