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Romney’s “Lehman Moment”?

Scott Galupo discerns panic in the Romney campaign’s shameless opportunism last night and this morning:

Before yesterday, the idea that the Romney campaign was “desperate” would have struck me as myopic and overexcited. Now it seems unmistakably clear. The Romney campaign knows it’s losing.

The extraordinary thing is that Romney may have been losing yesterday, but he wasn’t being widely ridiculed and attacked for having practically disqualified himself from consideration. When senior Republican foreign policy professionals start referring to this as his “Lehman moment,” likening it to McCain’s mid-September meltdown in response to the financial crisis, we can see that Romney’s latest attempt to seize on an international event has done significant and possibly irreparable damage to his campaign. Most Americans may not sympathize with Romney’s more aggressive foreign policy, but they might have been willing to believe him to be competent and have good judgment. This blunder undermines his claims to both of these.

Romney has made many foreign policy blunders before now, but this is the only one that has provoked such swift, harsh, and near-unanimous criticism. The most incredible part is that all of this has been self-inflicted. Romney and his campaign volunteered for this by inserting themselves into the story. If it were simply the other campaign or Democratic partisans that were hammering Romney on this, it wouldn’t be any different from previous mistakes, but the backlash hasn’t been limited to his partisan foes. The dishonesty of the original Romney statement and the gall of his press conference this morning have combined to create serious doubts about his judgment and to confirm the impression that there are no limits to his opportunism.

As a practical matter, this episode shows how useless Romney’s main foreign policy theme has been. According to Romney, Obama “apologizes for” America, and Romney won’t. He tried to shoehorn the embassy attacks into this frame, and it didn’t work for at least two reasons. First, Obama didn’t respond to the attacks by apologizing for anything or sympathizing with the attackers, as Romney’s original statement charged, so it was blatantly false. Romney’s position that the U.S. should never “apologize for” American values is almost beside the point. Would this have made any difference to the people assaulting the embassy in Cairo or the consulate in Benghazi? Would the attacks not have happened if Romney had been conducting his own brand of thoroughly unapologetic activist foreign policy? It seems unlikely. Romney might have legitimately questioned the security arrangements for the consulate, for example, or he could have made the fair observation that Libya’s new government is very weak and Libya as a whole has serious security problems, but that wouldn’t have translated into the easy and satisfying point-scoring that Romney seems to prefer. It wouldn’t have fit his ready-made scheme of Obama-as-Carter, but it would have spared him of most of the ridicule he’s receiving now. Now instead of portraying Obama as Carter, he has presented himself as the bumbling McCain figure of 2012.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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