Usually when a presidential campaign revolves around tone, timing and how a certain story is “playing,” we’ve reached a discouraging place. The policy is more important than the politics, so let’s not get caught up in the theatrics.
In the case of the violence in Egypt and Libya, the underlying policy is still more important, but the theatrics are not entirely trivial. In international affairs, what, when and how you say something is important. That fact is at the heart of both Romney’s complaint about the U.S. Embassy’s response to violence in Egypt and the critique of Romney’s response.
Here’s what happened: Shortly before protests erupted in Egypt, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement “condemn(ing) the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” The statement was issued in response to an anti-Muslim movie allegedly inflaming the rioters. The mission was then attacked. The embassy condemned the violence and reiterated its earlier statement.
Romney issued a press release saying he was “outraged by the attacks” and the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi, Libya where violence had also erupted and where later, three more would be reported dead, including the ambassador. Romney went on to say that it was “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.”
What is a voter to make of Romney’s response to these dramatic events, which also included a press conference where he stood by his initial reaction? If diplomacy is a balance between seizing the moment and knowing when doing so will hurt your larger cause, has Romney shown himself to be a successful leader?
Romney believes that U.S. policy has been too concerned with the feelings of our enemies and rivals around the world. Here you had an embassy trying to forestall riots by showing empathy. Romney thinks that is weak and dangerous, which is why the embassy’s statement did nothing.
This mindset is so dangerous he had to speak right away and not exercise the political challenger’s usual restraint embodied in Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s phrase that “politics are supposed to stop at the water’s edge.” The thinking in the Romney camp is that there is no better time than the present to point out what you think is a catastrophic flaw.
In short, Romney wanted to dispense with custom to get his point across. It’s ridiculous to maintain niceties when there are vital issues at stake. Sometimes not maintaining the old customs shows just how serious you are.
When Romney insulted the British by saying they weren’t so well-prepared for the Olympics, he defended himself by saying he was merely giving straight talk to an ally. The conditions were significant enough that politesse wasn’t warranted.
Before the Libya story broke, President Barack Obama was being criticized for not meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In that case, Romney thought the president – who can talk to Netanyahu whenever he wants – was not maintaining the niceties of a personal tete-a-tete required when such a crucial U.S. ally would be in the country.
In this instance, the Republican candidate obviously wasn’t out of line in thinking the initial embassy statement was too soft. The State Department thought so too and issued a statement saying that the embassy statement hadn’t been vetted and that violence is never warranted.
But since the State Department was already on the case, did Romney really need to speak out? The original wrong had been corrected; all that was to be gained by rushing out to a microphone was political advantage.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Romney trying to take political advantage. This is a campaign, after all. In fact, good for Romney. This campaign could use a vigorous fight over foreign policy. So far, the campaign has been almost devoid of a discussion of foreign policy, an issue area where a president has arguably more power than the economy.
Proof of this lack of emphasis is that Romney picked a vice president with almost no foreign-policy experience. The Romney camp probably rightly calculated that Paul Ryan’s inexperience on this front wouldn’t be that big a liability. Foreign policy hasn’t been a front-burner in this campaign, so Romney knew people wouldn’t giggle when he claimed Ryan was uniquely qualified to step in as president.
But was this the exact moment to dispel the campaign’s lack of foreign-policy focus? That takes us back to Romney’s audition for the role of diplomat.
Do people have a better understanding of his views about Obama’s foreign-policy weaknesses because he moved swiftly? Or did he bury his policy argument by breaking with custom and failing to understand the context for his remarks? He surely knew that anything he said would be interpreted in a political context.
Was he right that his point was so winning that it could survive the inevitable criticism it would bring? Was it so winning that it was worth putting it out there quickly when events might change and make him look uninformed? Was it worth setting a new rapid response standard for speaking out forcefully on developments in the world?
The answers to these questions will tell us not just if Romney can weather this moment politically, but whether he will be able to get the balance right when he’s faced with just these kinds of challenges as president.John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.