Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney makes comments on the killing of U.S. embassy officials in Benghazi, Libya, while speaking in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday.

Libya attack political fallout: Obama as Carter? Romney as Nixon?

In the hardball politics of this presidential campaign, President Obama is being likened to Jimmy Carter and Mitt Romney to Richard Nixon – former presidents their parties keep out of sight.

In this week’s political fight over the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, the two presidential candidates are being likened to White House predecessors they’d just as soon avoid: Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter and Mitt Romney to Richard Nixon.

It’s hardball campaign politics, of course, less surprising perhaps with the Obama-Carter comparison.

As he was fighting to get re-elected in 1980, Mr. Carter as commander-in-chief had to deal with the Iran hostage crisis – 52 Americans held for 444 days when militants took over the US Embassy in Tehran. Carter ordered a rescue mission that failed, killing eight US service personnel.

“For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated,” Romney foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson told the Washington Post. (The reference is to Adolph Dubs, US ambassador to Afghanistan, killed in a kidnapping attempt in 1979.)

Other Republicans and conservative commentators weighed in as well with their own Carter comparisons, including Rep. Allen West, Sen. James Inhofe, former UN ambassador (and Romney advisor) John Bolton, and Sean Hannity on Fox News.

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Mr. Romney himself has invoked Carter, as did GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan when he asserted that “every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say that you are better off today than you were four years ago, except for Jimmy Carter and for President Barack Obama."

Mr. Carter, of course, lost the 1980 election, and the Romney campaign’s aim is to see President Obama meet the same political fate.

But in his controversial comments regarding the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya – that Obama was “sympathizing” with the attackers and “apologizing for America’s values” – Romney himself is being likened to a failed president, the one forced to resign in disgrace.

The main difference, however, is that the comparison is being drawn by a major conservative voice: Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan.

“He has not shown that he is a person of original foreign policy thinking,” she said in a Wall Street Journal video. Regarding what many analysts found to be snap and intemperate comments in the middle of a diplomatic crisis that would spread from Egypt and Libya to other countries, she said, “I don’t feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors.”

Then came the kicker.

“Romney looked weak today,” Ms. Noonan said. “At one point, he had a certain slight grimace on his face when he was taking tough questions from the reporters. And I thought, ‘He looks like Richard Nixon.’”

As the week wore on, Noonan wasn’t the only one on the right critical of Romney’s attempt to cast the tragedy in Libya – where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy employees were killed in what seems to have been a coordinated attack, perhaps with ties to Al Qaeda – in an overtly political light.

The Romney campaign “probably should have waited,” former US Senator John Sununu said on MSNBC. “You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it, they probably should have waited."

Mark Salter, senior strategist for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, wrote on RealClearPolitics: “In the wake of this violence, the rush by Republicans – including Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and scores of other conservative critics – to condemn [Obama] for policies they claim helped precipitate the attacks is as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing.”

“Politicians must pander, it goes with the job,” conservative writer David Frum wrote on the Daily Beast. “But they mustn't leave their fingerprints all over their pandering. The Romney campaign's attempt to score political points on the killing of American diplomats was a dismal business in every respect. Disregarding every other aspect, however, it was graceless and stupid as a matter of politics.”

These days, Republicans love to be likened to (or at least bask in the glow of) Ronald Reagan. So perhaps it’s worth noting what Mr. Reagan as presidential challenger said during President Carter’s dark hour when the Iran hostage rescue mission had failed.

“This is a difficult day for all of us Americans,” Reagan said at a press conference. “It is time for us … to stand united. It is a day for quiet reflection … when words should be few and confined essentially to our prayers.”

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