Egypt embassy protests: Will Mitt Romney's comments matter in November?

Gaffes spoken in haste on the campaign trail can fade. But an inaccurate statement, geared for political advantage at a time of national crisis, could have a longer impact on the presidential race.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney makes comments on the killing of US Embassy officials in Benghazi, Libya, while speaking in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday.

Will Mitt Romney’s comments on the Middle East matter to voters when they go to the polls on Nov. 6? That’s a question roiling the US political world in the wake of the tragic killing of the US ambassador to Libya and continued riots outside American embassies in the region.

Democrats say Mr. Romney has hurt himself with hasty and inaccurate remarks about a situation he doesn’t appear to understand. Republicans reply that their standard-bearer is forcefully highlighting the fecklessness of President Obama’s foreign policy.

Our view is this: This uproar probably won’t make any more difference in the end than previous media obsessions over shiny baubles such as Romney’s (nonpublic) tax returns. Except ... foreign policy is a serious matter. In that sense, the electoral outcome of this incident is less predictable than that of purely domestic flaps.

As the estimable University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato notes, it’s still seven weeks until Nov. 6, which is plenty of time for this to disappear completely from voters’ minds. But what if the crisis deepens? On Thursday, riots spread to Yemen. In that context, it is possible that a rally-around-the-flag effect will help Mr. Obama. It is also possible that the situation will appear to spin out of the incumbent’s control, giving an advantage to Romney.

“Int’l chaos favors incumbent POTUS short term,” tweeted Mr. Sabato on Thursday morning. “Yet events can spin in many different directions. Best bet: Unsettled calm, campaign moves on.”

To recap, on the evening of Sept. 11, Romney issued a statement condemning what he characterized as the Obama administration’s “sympathy” for the rioters storming the walls of the US Embassy in Cairo. He based this on a tweet from the Embassy itself – sent prior to the breach of security – that reaffirmed US support for religious tolerance in light of the crude anti-Muslim film that had inflamed the mob.

The Embassy tweet had not been cleared by the White House. Minutes before Romney’s statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued her own release condemning the violence and saying there was no justification for the Middle East attacks.

Subsequent events showed the situation in Libya in particular was more serious than it first appeared. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in an assault that US officials now suspect was planned by organized, armed militants, and perhaps by Al Qaeda itself.

Then at a press conference on the morning of Sept. 12, GOP nominee Romney doubled down on his critique.

“The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values,” said Romney.

OK, so that was the spark that got this whole thing started. Since then, the pushback from Democrats has been ferocious. They accuse Romney of knowingly making inaccurate statements framed for political advantage at a time of national crisis. Obama himself, in an interview with CBS's “60 Minutes," said, “Governor Romney has a tendency to shoot first and aim later."

Few prominent Republicans initially defended Romney. GOP leaders on Capitol Hill issued general statements expressing sympathy for the families of the fallen diplomats and general support for the United States. Since then, however, some have begun to speak out on what they feel to be legitimate questions regarding the administration’s Middle East policies.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Romney’s predecessor as GOP nominee, knew Ambassador Stevens and has publicly mourned the loss of a great US ambassador. But in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, Senator McCain added that “the fact is the United States in the Middle East is weak. We are seen as withdrawing, and we are paying a price for that weakness.... I hope that Mitt Romney will be looking at the big picture."

But wasn’t this election supposed to turn entirely on the economy? Any time Romney spends talking about US relations with Egypt, Iran, and Israel is time he does not spend highlighting American unemployment.

Of course, it’s possible that theory is no longer operable, and that Romney is looking to raise noneconomic subjects. Liberal blogger Greg Sargent Thursday in his Plum Line column in the Washington Post highlights four polls that show Obama and Romney tied on the question of whom voters think is best to handle the economy.

“This again raises the question of whether Romney’s basic theory of this race – that it’s inevitable that Obama will lose, because voters will conclude that he failed on the economy and will opt for an alternative that clears the most basic threshold of acceptability – is fundamentally flawed,” Mr. Sargent writes.

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