The embassy statement, issued hours before protests in Cairo and the attack in Libya began, had tried to mollify Muslims upset at an American-made anti-Islam video. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the statement said.The most obvious problem here is the timeline; the statement which Romney used as the basis of his attack was issued in Egypt, and it was issued before the violence in Libya. But there's another glaring problem: yesterday, Mitt Romney's campaign distributed talking points which echoed the embassy's message—the very message that Romney aimed to condemn.
For Mr. Romney, whose 2010 book, “No Apology,” assailed Mr. Obama for what he saw as trying to placate America’s enemies, the embassy statement rankled. When aides showed it to him, they said he reacted strongly to the notion of “hurt” religious feelings. In his mind, they said, the Obama administration was aligning itself with those who would do harm to the United States. Already on the defensive for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech and losing some ground in recent polls, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity to draw a stark contrast.
While Mr. Romney was on a four-hour flight from Reno, Nev., to Jacksonville, Fla., his senior staff — a mix of the policy shop, the communications team, and the strategy operation — crafted a statement on a conference call. Among those participating were Lanhee Chen, the policy director; Richard Williamson, a foreign policy adviser; and Stuart Stevens, the campaign strategist.
As soon as Mr. Romney landed, he was updated on breaking developments. He personally read and approved his campaign’s statement before it was sent out at 10:10 p.m. Tuesday. “It’s 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,” it said.
Questions & Answers:So according to Romney's campaign, Romney "rejects" the movie's "hatred." Yet yesterday, Romney condemned the embassy statement for saying basically the same thing. And as if to underscore the point, Romney's campaign included this follow-up talking point:
Don’t you think it was appropriate for the embassy to condemn the controversial movie in question? Are you standing up for movies like this?
– Governor Romney rejects the reported message of the movie. There is no room for religious hatred or intolerance.
– If pressed: Governor Romney repudiated this individual in 2010 when he attempted to mobilize a Quran-burning movement. He is firmly against any expression of religious hatred or intolerance.So ... Mitt Romney is "firmly against any expression of religious hatred or intolerance"? How is that in any way different than the embassy statement that he criticized? It's not—at all.
Well, it is different in one way: Romney's statement blamed Florida pastor Terry Jones for creating the movie that has been used to incite some of the turmoil. But while Jones has helped promote the movie, he didn't create it. Without defending Jones, Romney's statement is yet another example of him shooting before he aims.
Bottom-line: Mitt Romney's smirking disaster was catastrophic for three big reasons:
1. His attack was not grounded in reality. His botched rendering of the timeline of events guaranteed that the attack could not possibly pass any minimum threshold of scrutiny.
2. The eagerness with which he went on the attack betrayed a political desperation and a cynical opportunism that made him look unfit for the presidency.
3. At the end of the day, Romney wasn't just attacking a straw man—he was attacking a straw man with whom his campaign says he agrees.
With all this, it's completely fair to wonder whether there's any way for his campaign to recover.