Here’s the thing about Mitt Romney: He’s a Republican candidate for president in the unenviable bind of not being able to run on any sort of record at all. He’s tried to run on his record as a businessman, but that’s been no good. The Democrats have done a pretty effective job painting him as a robber baron lighting cigars with the pensions of little old ladies, whose companies Bain & Company just liquidated for the LOLs. He can’t run on his record as a governor, because then the GOP base has its face rubbed in the fact that Romney gave socialized medicine to gay people who could get married, and that just won’t do. He can’t go out there and articulate his economic plan, bolted on as it is by the good graces of his Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, because Ryan’s economic plan is frankly insane, the sort of plan you make when you apparently think that the oliganarchy of the Russian 1990s is something to aim for, not run away from.
Constrained as he is, he’s got nothing he can actually use to make a case for himself but himself — Mitt Romney, with that genial smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, that head of hair strategically left to gray at the temples, and that paternal aura of competence that says, hey, trust me, put me in the job and we’ll deal with all those silly fiddly details later. And you know what? With the economy still farting about and Obama still being as cuddly as a prickly pear, and Romney having a bunch of SuperPACs willing to shovel money until there’s not a swing state that’s not carpetbombed with ads, this had a reasonably good chance of working. But ultimately it only works if you actually trust Romney — or alternately, have no reason to distrust Romney — to make sane, responsible and intelligent decisions.
Which is why Romney blew up his chance to be president this week: He showed, manifestly, that he’s indeed capable of making horrible, awful, very bad, no good, terrible choices. First, by deciding that a foreign crisis, generally considered to be off-limits for bald, obvious politicking, would be an excellent time to engage in some bald, obvious politicking. Second, by making a statement slamming the president while the crisis was still in the process of developing and getting worse. Third, by blaming the president for an action he had no hand in (the press release from the under siege embassy) and which his administration had disavowed. Fourth, when after the facts of the events became clear, and it became clear that Romney’s statement had some serious factual holes in it, for doubling down at a press conference on assertions everyone knew by that time weren’t correct.
How appalling was Romney’s decision-making process in attacking Obama on the embassy attacks? So appalling that it took three whole days for the GOP to find a way to get its messaging to support Romney’s position (sort of). And in the meantime, everyone in the world was treated to diplomats, politicians and commentators on both sides of the aisle saying the somewhat more articulate equivalent of “What is this I don’t even” to Romney’s antics.
Was there a legitimate criticism to be made of the administration’s handling of the embassy attacks? Sure, although it would have been smarter not to release it on September 11. Did Romney make it? No. When presented with a fine opportunity to recraft and restate his criticism, did Romney take advantage of it? Quite the opposite, in fact. Has Romney’s refusal to walk back his initial screw-up compromised legitimate criticism about how the embassy attacks have been handled? Oh, my, yes. It’s amazing, actually. It’s as if at every turn in the crisis Romney had an opportunity to do something that wouldn’t make him look like a cat with a bag on its head navigating through a room full of bar stool legs, and chose instead the opposing course. It’s impressive in its way, but it’s a not a good way to be impressive.
What Romney has done here is in fact similar to something his predecessor John McCain did in 2008: Seize a moment in a crisis to take a bold step, without checking to see if one is in fact stepping into the abyss. McCain’s moment came when the economy started collapsing in on itself, and McCain decided to suspend his campaign, postpone the debates and generally attempt to make it look like he was already president already. This didn’t go over particularly well, as you may recall. It certainly puzzled me. For me it signaled the point at which Obama began pulling away with the election, because it made McCain look panicky and befuddled rather than decisive and in charge. As I wrote at the time:
I wish that this sudden, overwhelming concern wasn’t such a transparent attempt to continue to McCain presidential strategy of attempting to win the White House without being required to articulate coherently to the public or the press why he’s presidential material. McCain has missed more Senate votes this year than any senator not recovering from a massive stroke, so an active presence in the Senate is not something he’s put much of a premium on since beginning his campaign. He isn’t rushing to Washington to help, he’s running away from everything else. He is the Sir Robin of 2008 presidential election.
Fast-forward to 2012. Here is another crisis, of a different sort. Here’s another candidate, attempting to look bold and decisive, ending up looking like he has no idea what he’s doing and in the process stripping away the one item he has to base his campaign on: The illusion that he can be trusted to do the right thing. Here’s another place where there’s an excellent chance we’ll one day look back and say: This is where the GOP lost the presidency this time around.
Romney went Full McCain on this one. We see how well it worked for McCain. I suspect it’ll work just as well for Romney.