Balancing Acts

I’m not as quick as some commentators in concluding that Mitt Romney’s behavior last night and this morning is going to “disqualify” him in the eyes of swing voters, or even have a significant effect on the presidential election (other than, of course, providing yet another “distraction” for a campaign that has been allegedly struggling to get “back on message” about the referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy even as it flounders around on a variety of other issues).

But there’s a real risk for Romney that elite opinion is going to keep the debate going on the appropriateness of Mitt’s intervention to the point that the distraction, and questions about his judgment, will continue for some time.

There’s just not much reasonable ground to stand on in suggesting that Barack Obama his mishandled the situation or “symphathized” with terrorists. Dave Weigel reminds us today that even the supposedly craven statement from the Embassy in Cairo (which preceded any violence and was clearly aimed at preventing it) is precisely in line with how past administrations–most notably that of George W. Bush during the backlash to the Danish cartoon incident in 2006–talked about the “offense” caused by anti-Muslim agitprop:

Free speech advocates, then and now, retch at the thought of governments “sympathizing” with murderous thugs. But it’s not some innovation of the Kenyan anti-colonial Obama administration. It’s how our government’s acted, when either party’s been in control, in an age of heavy involvement in the Muslim world. If you’re going to maintain embassies in the hearts of Arab capitals, you’re not going to be able to respond to these situations the way Christopher Hitchens would’ve.

No question about that, and the tepid reaction of Republicans to Romney’s gambit (despite Jennifer Rubin’s hilarious effort to search high and low to create a list of conservatives backing him) reflects that underlying reality.

So what was Team Mitt thinking? Jonathan Chait is probably right in suggesting that they simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to supply some fresh example of the fictitious Obama “apology tour” that has always been at the center of Romney’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy. They saw the Cairo embassy statement, plugged it into their messaging formula, and then today made the questionable decision to emphasize it.

Perhaps the political calculation was that American voters would react viscerally to the images from Egypt and Libya, so who cares what the experts say? Trouble is, Mitt’s not only getting beaten up in the MSM, but the type of people defending him now and the arguments they advance are bound to be disquieting to the majority of Americans who see no particular reason to pursue dangerous brinkmanship in the Middle East.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.