Last week, violent mobs descended on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen following the murder of our ambassador and three other Americans in Libya. Angry protests soon spread to Kuwait, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan.
The Arab Spring is turning into a cold and ominous winter. The Libyan government has contradicted the Obama administration on whether anti-American attacks were premeditated. And the president’s foreign policy in the region is suddenly looking no more successful than his attempts to stimulate the economy.
Yet it was Mitt Romney the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza designated as having had the “worst week in Washington.” Such proclamations drive Republicans crazy, since they see them as evidence of liberal media bias. They have half a point that a president’s actual record should receive as much scrutiny as a candidate’s statements, if not much more.
But seeing an opening in the listless statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, later disavowed by the Obama administration itself, Romney overreached. He appeared to invoke the D’Souza Doctrine, imputing to the Obama team “sympathy” for the attackers. A riff on Kenyan anti-colonialism cannot be far behind.
The “apology tour” rhetoric resonates among the Republican base. Romney’s statement was applauded forcefully when quoted at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. Yet it fails to connect Romney to the voters who view Obama as ineffectual but well meaning, and gave the media an excuse to change the subject from a Middle East crisis under the president’s watch.
Once Romney clinched the Republican nomination, it was widely assumed he would follow the time-honored tradition begun by Richard Nixon of running to the center in the general election after having run to the right in the primaries. Romney bragged about being a “progressive” Republican just a decade before and perfected the art of political shape-shifting. Longtime Romney consigliere Eric Fehrnstrom implied as much in a March CNN interview when asked how his boss’ “severe” conservatism would play in November. “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehnrstrom replied. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch.”
Faced with a base election, however, Romney hasn’t reached for that reset button. After a Republican National Convention aimed mainly at persuading swing voters that Romney is a nice enough guy to be president, he has alternated between serving up red meat and falling silent when there are no clear cues from GOP conservatives as to what he should say.
This presents three problems. The first is that the red meat doesn’t seem to be selling with the voters Romney needs: the people who think Obama is a failure but worry that Romney is too out of touch to credibly represent their interests in Washington. The second is that Romney is often less than artful in the delivery of his lines, as one would expect of a former Massachusetts governor. The third is he has no script on pressing problems ranging from the U.S. role in Libya to wage stagnation.
There have been hints that Romney would like to pivot slightly on health care. In his unguarded moments, he has let slip that perhaps Romneycare is more of a national model than he has let on. But given his history, that would be like once again changing his position on abortion – and would carry similar risk with the conservative voters he desperately needs.
Romney probably wouldn’t benefit much from following his dubious health care inclinations, but his inability to safely put the Republican primaries behind him is a serious problem. He must always look over his shoulder and protect his right flank. This has prevented him from broadening his critique of Obama to one that reaches beyond the 46 percent or so of the vote he already has wrapped up.
A few times, Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have made effective arguments about Obama over-promising and under-delivering. This has proved true with the economy, but it is also playing out in the Middle East. As someone who owes his political success to speechmaking, Obama has exaggerated the extent to which his oratory can solve the problems of that troubled region or even compensate for his own drone strikes.
But it is difficult to make this case when Romney’s alternative is simply chest-beating. If Obama speechifies, emotes and apologizes, Romney struts, baits liberals and says to hell with apologies—all while drawing fire away from his opponent.
When Romney reaches out, he risks losing conservatives. It’s a risk he has been unwilling to take, so he hugs his 46 percent of the vote all the tighter, hoping undecideds will break heavily enough against the incumbent to put him over the top. The Etch-a-Sketch is broken while the broken record in the White House drones on.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.