There are some unwritten general rules in the course of U.S. presidential politics when it comes to criticizing a sitting leader. First among them is that when the country or its representatives in a foreign nation comes under attack, the opposition does not attack the incumbent.
The Romney campaign, however, violated the rule.
According to the Huffington Post, “in 1916 and 1940 over Europe, in 1968 over Vietnam, in 2004 over Iraq — presidential politics traditionally stopped at least temporarily in times of crisis or emergency. Candidates including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and John Kerry all chose to still their partisan rhetoric at least temporarily during such moments.”
Such behavior isn’t designed to protect a particular candidate, but rather, the office of the presidency and to show solidarity as a nation during a critical period.
On Tuesday, the U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning an anti-Muslim film making the rounds on the Internet. While the White House later disavowed the statement, later that evening security at the embassy in Egypt was breached and the U.S. consulate in Libya was attacked and four people were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The administration condemned the attacks, but in a statement released Tuesday night after the tragedy, Romney, said “the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Romney’s sequence of events that triggered the so-called “apology,” as Romney and his surrogates described it, didn’t happen quite the way his campaign laid it out.
The attacks occurred after the U.S. embassy in Cairo criticized the film but before the attack in Libya. The U.S. disavowed the statement and deleted subsequent tweets from the embassy’s Twitter account, according to Talking Points Memo.
Sam Bacile, the man behind the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” told National Public Radio (NPR) that he made the film “to expose Islam as a hateful religion.” The movie triggered protests in Cairo and Obama administration and Libyan officials are investigating leads that suggest that terrorists in Libya used the film, which was released in July, to incite protests to give them cover for a planned attack on the U.S. embassy there on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania.
Romney’s attempt to turn the embassy statement into political hay and recycle the GOP’s oft-recited contention in 2008 that Obama would kowtow to foreign interests may well have backfired.
First of all, while the embassy did stand behind the statements before they were removed from the Twitter account, it also condemned the embassy security breach triggered by the protests before the attacks in Libya.
And regardless of the behavior of diplomatic staff in Egypt, the statements were not an expression of official Obama administration sentiment.
Although, one might ask, what’s wrong with condemning bigotry?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much in a statement Tuesday night:
“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Some Republicans endorsed Romney’s response, at least initially, but by Wednesday even some key GOP party leaders and pundits sought to tone down the rhetoric.
Conservative writer Peggy Noonan told Fox News Romney could have a bit more discrete in his remarks. House Speaker John Boehner skirted the controversy altogether, issuing a brief statement expressing regret for the killings.
But Romney wouldn’t let it go. He accused the administration of sending “mixed signals” after the decision to remove the embassy tweets and also issue a statement condemning the protests.
His campaign clearly has no intention of backing down, although it has gotten on the “violence is never acceptable, no matter the reason” bandwagon and also condemns the film’s message.
The difficulty in attacking the president in this way, however, is not only does Romney risk looking bad because of the sloppy handling of the incident, but he has opened the door to the diminishing of the Office of the President of the United States, making it harder for Americans to pull together in tough times.
It was a selfish short-term move that could cost any president down the road.
Even if Romney were to prevail in November, he has established a precedent that the leader of the country has no rights any citizen is bound to respect. His target may have been Obama, but it’s the kind of action that could boomerang and hurt a President Romney.
"There's a broader lesson to be learned here: Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later and as president one of the things I've learned is you can't do that," Obama told CBS News’ Steve Kroft during an interview Wednesday."It's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."