With Tuesday's national-security speech commemorating the attacks of 9/11, Mitt Romney has a chance to move beyond a misstep that has ballooned into a real problem for his campaign: his failure to mention the war in Afghanistan or to thank the troops during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
The omission quickly became the biggest take-away from Mr. Romney’s otherwise well-received but unremarkable speech, and the candidate has been fending off questions about it ever since.
It has given Democrats an opening to further exploit a rare national-security edge for their side. Polls have shown President Obama leading Romney on national security and foreign policy throughout the campaign, though those issues are not nearly as important to voters as the economy.
A Politico piece out Tuesday details the “Kerry-ization of Mitt Romney,” referring to a coordinated effort by Democrats to portray Romney as “untrustworthy on national security,” just as Republicans portrayed Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. Ironically, this time it was Senator Kerry himself who launched the attack, with a scathing speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he said: “no nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech.”
Kerry also threw in this (also highly ironic) zinger: “It isn’t fair to say that Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position.”
But perhaps even more devastating than all the Democratic criticism has been the reaction from many Republicans to Romney’s omission.
Romney has struggled throughout this campaign to placate a chorus of Beltway critics on the right, many of whom were rooting for other candidates (or even would-be candidates) during the primary season. When the GOP nominee put conservative darling Paul Ryan on the ticket, it seemed like a master stroke that would finally win over many of those naysayers – and, for a time, it did.
But the Afghanistan omission quickly put an end to that honeymoon.
Shortly after Romney’s speech, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol issued a biting critique on the paper’s website, in which he questioned “the civic propriety of a presidential nominee failing even to mention, in his acceptance speech, a war we’re fighting and our young men and women who are fighting it.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” George Will essentially stated that Romney’s failure to mention Afghanistan reflected the fact that his policy on it was untenable: “If Mitt Romney’s position is we should fight on in Afghanistan until we defeat the Taliban, whatever that means, he will lose and he should lose.”
For Mitt Romney to still be facing this kind of fire from the right – with just two months left before Election Day – is not a good sign.
Romney’s advisers argued, in their defense, that the candidate had given a speech to the American Legion the day before his convention address, in which he did address Afghanistan. But the choice to leave it out of the convention speech entirely seemed tone-deaf to many conservatives who, from the beginning, have questioned whether Romney shares their worldview. And it gave them an excuse to go back to not liking Romney all over again.
One full week after the speech, in an interview with Fox News, host Bret Baier asked Romney if he regretted “opening up this line of attack, now a recurring attack, by leaving out that issue in the speech?”
Romney tried to respond with a joke, saying: “I only regret you repeating it day in and day out.”
With today's speech, he may be able to turn the page at last. But the damage may have already been done.