Mitt Romney's strategy was to make this election a referendum on President Barack Obama, one in which voters unhappy with the struggling economy would vote out the incumbent. Obama sought to make this a "choice" election, presenting himself as the better pick.
Now, Romney, through his own actions, has done the unfathomable: He is bringing the campaign back to a referendum. But it is increasingly becoming a referendum on Romney.
There were so many missteps in Romney's response to the tragic murder of a respected, career U.S. ambassador and three other Americans that it's hard to decide which was most troubling. The former governor issued a hasty statement—and on a day of remembrance for the 9/11 victims, despite a gentleperson's agreement not to campaign negatively on that day—accusing the Obama administration of making an "apology" to those who attacked U.S. embassies and killed four people in the service of the U.S. government. This was based on a simple and very defensible statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo hours before the outposts in Egypt and Libya were breached: It simply said that the United States condemns the "misguided" efforts by a few to insult a religion—any religion.
To Romney, this was an "apology" to assassins. In fact, it was basic diplomacy. Hordes were beginning to gather outside the Cairo embassy, reportedly because they were upset by a very offensive film that depicts the prophet Muhammed as a killer, enslaver, child abuser, and pervert. It's useless to have an intellectual discussion about whether it's reasonable for Muslims abroad to associate the film with the United States or American policy. The point is that many do, and basic diplomacy (not to mention aversion of a violent crisis) dictates a response to assure people that no, that is not the view of the U.S. government. That is not an abrogation of American values as the GOP nominee suggested—it was a reaffirmation of the basic and proud American value of respecting all religions. One would think that Romney, who has suffered insults and misconceptions about his own Mormon religion, would understand that.
Hours after the deadly attack in Libya, Romney defied basic diplomatic procedure and issued a statement attacking the commander in chief in the middle of a still-unfolding international crisis. That was not only poor manners, but raises questions about how much thought Romney would give before reacting to an international crisis should he end up occupying the Oval Office. When something that tragic and yet potentially headed toward something even worse occurs, the sensible thing is to gather all the available intelligence and act in a manner that protects and affirms U.S. interests without escalating things—particularly when there are other American diplomats still in potential danger. True, Romney is not privy to classified intelligence. That's all the more reason to hold one's rhetorical fire.
Then Romney doubled-down, ignoring an overwhelmingly negative early reaction to his first statement. He repeatedly used the word "apology"—whether he's trying to sell more copies of his book No Apology or whether he's desperately trying to keep alive the canard that Obama has gone around the world "apologizing for America," is not clear. But it was a political statement, not a reasoned response of someone who hopes to be the nation's chief diplomat. One wonders who is advising Romney on foreign policy. One of them is former Ambassador Richard Williamson, who went on MSNBC to defend the governor. When Williamson was reminded of criticism levied by respected former diplomat Nicholas Burns, he interjected to assault Burns's own record. Burns is a career foreign service officer and White House foreign policy adviser, and has served in the administration of both former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Williamson shot back to host Andrea Mitchell that Burns had worked for Carter. That's true—that's what foreign service officers do; like soldiers, they work for whomever is in office. But Williamson's effort to diminish the star diplomat by connecting him to an unpopular president is pathetic and an insult to every member of the diplomatic corps who serve honorably—sometimes risking their lives—for their country. Williamson's experience has been as a political appointee, and some of his career has been indeed driven by politics: He ran for Senate as a GOP candidate from Illinois and served as the state's Republican chairman. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a different experience than being a career foreign service officer, as Burns—not to mention slain Ambassador Christopher Stevens—was.
And the episode exposes another problem for challengers for federal office: You can try to keep your campaign focused on issues you think work for you. But when you're in office—be it in the White House or Congress—you can't pick your issues anymore. Romney may try persistently to stay on message, answering questions on other topics by saying, "What I think Americans really care about is the economy," but you can't do that when you're commander in chief. Even if voters indeed are most worried about the economy, stuff happens, and a president has to respond. A CEO can plan, and Romney seems like a good planner. But being chief executive of the U.S. government means dealing with things that were not part of the plan. A venture capital executive can choose his or her investments. The U.S. government by definition, because of its role in the world, is automatically invested in a wide array of issues and regions. The president, whomever it is, must be able to respond responsibly to all of them.
Romney's comments do not come under the category of "gaffe," since they were not made off-the-cuff or off-mike. He—or someone—clearly thought this through, and very deliberately decided that it made sense for Romney to use an ongoing international tragedy to portray the president as ineffective or inconsistent on foreign policy. Instead, Romney revealed himself as a man who is more interested in a blustering, "no apology" approach to dealing with other people—not a good sign for domestic negotiations, either, given that whoever occupies the White House next year is likely to face even more closely-divided chambers in Congress. And his reaction put on display a startling lack of understanding of basic diplomacy—something we already saw, with far fewer potential consequences, during his trip to Britain, Israel, and Poland. It was a big risk—and apparently, a calculated one—Romney took. It may have succeeded only in turning the attention away from Obama's performance in office and put it squarely on Romney's readiness for office.