The Republican nominee’s major blunder today on the Benghazi and Cairo attacks was in many respects the sort of mistake that only Romney could have made. Inexperienced on foreign policy, but constantly hectored by his supporters to be more aggressive on these issues, he saw what he must have thought was a golden opportunity to prove to the world that Obama was the Carter clone he had been describing all this time. No modern Republican nominee has leaned so heavily on the Carter comparison since at least 1988, and it has probably never been less effective than it has this year. Having spent months building up the idea that Obama was another Carter (and that he was by implication another Reagan), Romney responded to an attack on American diplomatic missions by once again seeing Obama as a Carter simply awaiting his own hostage crisis. The attacks on the Benghazi consulate and the embassy in Cairo were awful, but fortunately they were nothing like what happened in Tehran in 1979, in part because the region is not very much like the way it was in 1979. Partly because Romney’s overall view of the rest of the world sometimes seems twenty or thirty years out of date, he continues unthinkingly rehearsing and applying the slogans that might have been appealing in another era because they might have actually meant something back then.
At the same time, Romney’s blunder could have been made by almost any leading national Republican today, because the blunder was rooted in an understanding of Obama’s foreign policy that relies heavily on things that have been grossly distorted or simply made up. Similarly, Republican hawks have developed an allergy to substantive policy arguments, preferring to fall back on talking points that were designed to win news cycles rather than reasoned arguments. Once one accepts the reality of the non-existent “apology tour,” providing supporting evidence for other charges would seem redundant and pointless. One of the things that has distinguished Romney’s foreign policy arguments is their relentless hostility to inconvenient empirical evidence. Contrary evidence is simply waved away, and facts are twisted or invented to fit a predetermined conclusion. This has usually involved making untrue claims about policies few people pay close attention to, but this week the gap between Romney’s foreign policy vision and reality was held up for intense scrutiny for all to see.
Added to this is the impulse to try to occupy the more hawkish ground in any debate, even when there isn’t a more hawkish option realistically available that anyone would be willing to consider. We saw something very similar to today’s blunder in 2008 when McCain’s first response to the war in Georgia was to ignore the facts, immediately accept the Georgian account of events, and declare that “we are all Georgians now.” The reality was that Bush was not going to provide much in the way of material support to Georgia during the conflict, so McCain had the luxury of agitating for a crazy position without any consequences. Then as now, what mattered to the Republican nominee was to prove that he was the more aggressive and less accommodating of the two candidates regardless of the circumstances. McCain’s response to the August 2008 war revealed something important about his poor judgment because it showed how potentially reckless and imprudent he would be in office. I don’t pretend that this changed many votes, but it helped to show the public why he shouldn’t be trusted with the Presidency.