Mitt Romney began the 2012 anniversary of September 11 by calling for a suspension of politics. “There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it,” Romney told a morning National Guard gathering in Reno, Nev.
Just hours later, Romney could no longer resist. Angered by an offensive YouTube video that mocked the prophet Mohammed, mobs had breached the walls at diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt. U.S. diplomats in Cairo, hoping to stem local furies, had issued a statement hours earlier: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
Romney saw an opportunity to tie his case that Barack Obama apologizes for American greatness to the news cycle. At 10:09 p.m., on the East Coast, before the full death toll of the mobs was known, the Romney campaign sent an email to reporters. “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” Romney wrote. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
In the hours that followed, the news got worse. The U.S. death toll in Libya grew to four, including the Libyan Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The White House made clear that it had not approved the Cairo memo, and condemned the events without qualification.
By Wednesday morning, stern condemnations from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for swift justice competed with a hastily called press conference by Romney to explain his late night barb. “The statement that came from the Administration was a statement which is akin to apology,” Romney said, standing his ground, even as he acknowledged that the White House had neither authored or defended the embassy press release. “I think it was a severe miscalculation.”
Presidential elections usually turn on big issues and broad trends, but sometimes it’s the unexpected and unimaginable things that matter. What top Obama and Romney political strategists feared most in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign was the stuff they couldn’t coming—a terrorist attack, an economic crisis, a deadly weather event, or madman’s rampage. No one could have predicted that an inflammatory attempt at online moviemaking would imperil U.S. interests in the Arab world, or lead to the murder of American diplomats. But when it happened, the country got the contrast the two campaigns had both feared.
While Romney explained his political barbs Wednesday morning, Obama made no mention of politics or his opponent in his statement following the attacks. From the Rose Garden, he spoke only of the dead, of his personal outrage, of the greatness of America’s freedoms and his plan for a national response. “Make no mistake,” Obama said, “we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”
Romney begins this chapter at a distinct disadvantage, already behind roughly 12 points when pollsters ask voters about foreign policy judgement. He is also fighting off criticism for his failure to mention the troops or Afghanistan in his Tampa convention speech. Indeed, the tangible policy differences between Romney and Obama have sometimes been hard to discern. Romney has criticized Obama for not being tougher on Iran, but has yet to lay out clear policy alternatives. Like Obama, Romney supports a transfer of control to Afghanistan to local forces by 2014, but unlike Obama, Romney says he will not call that timeframe a fixed timetable. Romney criticized “mission creep and mission muddle” after Obama authorized a NATO bombing of Libya, but then praised the killing of the nation’s tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. “It’s about time,” he said.
The early reviews on Romney’s handling of the episode were not glowing. Former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu, a Republican, told reporters that Romney “should have waited” to release the statement. Others were more critical. “It is a natural product of the election, but it is the worst possible reaction to what happened,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Republican foreign policy expert who has advised John McCain. “We need to be extremely cautious about rushing out and politicizing it.”
in the final weeks of a campaign of this scale, there are very few moments that really count. But when they matter, they can reshape the race. A day that began with Romney calling for national unity before politics in the face of terrorism ended with just the opposite. Voters will decide if the shift revealed Romney as a statesman displaying the courage of his convictions or a politician seeking advantage in a time of turmoil.
With reporting by Jay Newton-Small/Washington. This post has been updated (1:44 p.m. ET).