Let's Not Rush to Judge Mitt's Libyan Rush to Judgment
Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters in Belmont, MA, on Super Tuesday. Credit: Flickr/BU Interactive News.
Mitt Romney “stepped in it” we are being told, with hasty remarks trying to slam Barack Obama as an appeaser as the horrific events in Libya and Egypt unfolded. “Romney’s Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Doubts,” Bloomberg news proclaims. In our rush-to-judgment gaffe-oriented media culture, reporters are having a grand old time finding Republicans mumbling about Mitt’s meltdown and his “Lehman moment.” The next step, of course, will be to rummage through the historical closet, and find other campaign-ending gaffes. Expect to hear “presidential historians” on the network news pontificating about Gerald Ford’s premature, rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe from communism during the 1976 presidential debates -- thirteen years before the Soviet Empire crumbled; about Jimmy Carter’s invoking of his teenage daughter Amy’s expertise when talking about nuclear issues four years later; and about Michael Dukakis’s ride in a tank which made him look more like Snoopy fighting the Red Baron than a man prepared to be Commander-in-Chief.
These recent memories build on the modern journalistic addiction to “gotcha” journalism, as well as the more longstanding tendency to explain campaign losses and wins by dramatic turning points. Campaigning history is filled with such moments -- Henry Clay’s Alabama letters taught advisers explaining his 1844 loss to discourage candid candidates; James Blaine’s silence when he was introduced by the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, who called the Democrats the Party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” on the eve of the 1884 election, had future candidates paying more attention at campaign events, to avoid being “Burchardized” -- and many party bosses trying to keep candidates at home away from any campaign risks. Campaign grand slams having included Franklin Roosevelt’s flight to Chicago to accept the nomination in 1932, putting to rest fears that he was too handicapped to act assertively, while advertising that his “New Deal” for the American public involved a new leadership style not just bold programs, and Ronald Reagan’s “There-you-go-againing” of Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Ironically, pundits and pols are doing the same thing they accuse Romney of doing -- rushing to pronounce final judgment amid a changing and chaotic situation. Historic, devastating gaffes, like Limburger cheese, often need time to become truly pungent -- and sometimes, seemingly devastating gaffes, become like bubble gum, stale and discarded surprisingly quickly. For example, according to polls and focus groups at the time, most viewers watching the debate did not react immediately to Gerald Ford’s 1976 statement that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Reporters, however, pounced. In the Ford Library, Bob Teeter’s tracking polls show the gaffe problem growing with each turn of the news cycle. By contrast, during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan terrified his advisers and delighted his deriders by suggesting that trees caused more pollution than cars and that Vietnam was a “noble cause.” Lo and behold, not only did Reagan win, but he helped changed the American conversation about Vietnam. Had he lost, these two statements would have loomed large in the why-Reagan-failed narrative, instead of functioning as sidebars to the main story.
So let’s hold off on predicting, barely 24 hours after Romney’s remarks, just what impact his reactions will have -- especially considering that this crisis still has the potential to make the Obama administration look terrible. If Romney ultimately loses, the first comparison I will make of this stumble will be to John McCain’s hasty suspension of his campaign -- which he then quickly rescinded -- in 2008 as the economy tanked. The comparison might be apt as a moment that reinforced other moments, which built into growing, accumulated doubts about a candidate.
Ultimately, however, for now, I would say that this latest Mitt mess points to a broader, surprising, phenomenon we are seeing this campaign. Obama and the Democrats have robbed Republicans of the GOP’s decades-long edge on national security and foreign policy issues. The lingering fallout from the George W. Bush years, combined with Barack Obama’s success in presiding over the demise of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists killed by drones, has resulted in polls showing Americans having more confidence in the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate on foreign issues, even as Romney usually takes the lead in confidence on economic issues. Romney’s misfires in London and over Libya only exacerbate the problem, but the twist is interesting -- and potentially extremely significant. For now, however, we all have to do what we are loathe to do and await the people’s verdict before pundits and experts start pronouncing one way or another.
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