Romney's gamble ends in scramble for damage control
Statements by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney about the developing crises in Libya and Egypt led to a day of tumult for him, with leading voices in his party criticizing him and top aides scrambling to prevent further damage.
The Washington Post
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Crises overseas tend to create moments of joint resolve back home, a time to pause from the daily bickering of partisan politics. But as news was streaming in from attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney broke from that protocol.
Statements the Republican presidential nominee made slamming President Obama led to a day of tumult for Romney, with leading voices in his party criticizing him and top aides scrambling to prevent further damage.
The situation started Tuesday night, with Romney accusing Obama of sympathizing with anti-U.S. interests in the Muslim world.
But the timing of the statement — in the middle of ongoing incidents in Libya and Egypt — led to criticism that built as the night went on and intensified after Romney repeated the charge at a news conference in Jacksonville on Wednesday.
"I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation," Romney said. "An apology for America's values is never the right course."
Minutes after Romney's news conference in Jacksonville, Obama addressed the nation from the White House. With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, the president mourned the loss of American lives and vowed that "justice will be done."
Romney took a calculated gamble in admonishing the president before the full gravity of the situation was known, a senior campaign official said.
But Romney was left hanging from a weak limb as many in his party — including his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — appeared to undercut him with noticeably more conciliatory and somber responses. "This is a time for healing. It's a time for resolve," Ryan said Wednesday at a campaign stop in De Pere, Wis.
"It almost feels like Sarah Palin is his foreign-policy adviser," said Matthew Dowd, who was a top strategist for President George W. Bush. "It's just a huge mistake on the Romney campaign's part — huge mistake."
In an interview Wednesday with CBS News, Obama said there is "a broader lesson to be learned here."
"Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he told CBS. "And as president, one of the things I have learned is that you can't do that."
Top aides to Romney said publicly they had no regrets, but some advisers said privately that in a rapid-response media environment, thoughtfulness sometimes gives way to the drive to win the news cycle.
Aides distributed talking points to GOP officials and surrogates urging them to defend Romney's stance. Romney did get some support, initially and as the day went on. Wednesday, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted: "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and Pathetic."
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tweeted: "The attacks on our embassies & diplomats are a result of perceived American weakness. Mitt Romney is right to point that out."
Conservative writer Peggy Noonan told Fox News that Romney should have used more discretion.
Romney has struggled with foreign policy. He was criticized by Democrats and some Republicans for not mentioning the war in Afghanistan or paying tribute to U.S. troops in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last month.
Unlike Obama, Romney does not receive national-security briefings, and his aides and advisers watched the news and Twitter to monitor the situations in Egypt and Libya on Tuesday.
They seized on a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — apparently a response to outrage in Egypt over an anti-Muslim film made in California — that said: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
The statement was written hours before protesters breached the embassy's grounds in Cairo, although the embassy took to Twitter after the breach occurred to defend the initial statement. In Washington, unnamed White House officials told news outlets later Tuesday night that the embassy statement did not reflect U.S. government views.
By about 8 p.m. EST Tuesday, when Romney aides heard about the first U.S. casualty in Libya, they recommended he issue a statement, according to a senior campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"We were all in agreement that it was appropriate for the governor to say something, and we were all in agreement in terms of what he should say."
At the time, aides said, they did not know that J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, had been killed in Benghazi.
John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, thought Romney may have lost a chance to look presidential. "There are times when you just have to cede the president the mike," Geer said.
Material from McClatchy Newspapers is included.