Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, famously said that Romney would “hit a reset button” in the general election, much like shaking up an Etch-a- Sketch. But it’s doubtful that Fehrnstrom had in mind the startling turn of events in the past two days.
Barely two weeks after accepting his party’s nomination, Romney abruptly pivoted from his relentless attack on President Obama’s handling of the economy and job creation.He issued a searing critique of the administration’s allegedly apologetic response to attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya that left ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff dead in Benghazi.
SHOOTING FROM THE HIP?
The attacks and subsequent violence that spread yesterday to the American embassy in Yemen, have raised troubling questions about the administration’s resolve and skills in trying to transform a traditionally anti-American region into one more compatible with U.S. interests. Yesterday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, blasted Obama for irresolute leadership throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria, while Weekly Standard editor William Kristol wrote that Romney was right to “seize on this moment as an occasion to explain the difference between his foreign policy and President Obama’s.”
Yet switching the campaign debate from Obama’s stewardship of the economy to his shortcomings in the Middle East moved Romney off message at an important political moment and into a policy realm where the president and commander-in-chief almost certainly holds the upper hand.
On the same Wednesday morning that Romney was sharpening his attack on the administration’s response to the catastrophe in Libya, the Census Bureau issued an alarming report. In the aftermath of one of the worst recessions in history, median household income had dropped again in 2011, while the poverty level stayed flat after three consecutive years of increases.
Just a few days earlier, the Labor Department reported that American employers added just 96,000 jobs in August, far below what is needed to keep up with population growth. Worse still, the unemployment rate had dipped slightly to 8.1 percent – but only because more people had given up looking for work. For the 43rd consecutive month, unemployment was above the troubling 8 percent mark.
IT'S STILL THE STUPID ECONOMY
For a man arguing that Obama’s economic recovery policies have failed miserably, this should have been the topic de jour for candidate Romney. Polls have consistently shown that while most Americans give Obama higher grades on foreign policy and “likeability,” they think that the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital founder is better equipped than the president to get the economy back on track.
But even that is changing. A new survey by the conservative leaning Rasmussen polling firm found that Obama leads Romney, 47 percent to 45 percent, among voters on the question of who best can handle job creation. It’s an issue that 95 percent of voters have said will be important to them when they vote in November.
With Obama now inching ahead in the pols in most battleground states, Romney this week chose to crudely thrust himself into a complicated, murky, and rapidly unfolding international situation that will oblige him now – or in the upcoming debates, certainly – to explain precisely how he would better protect U.S. interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
So far, Romney’s foreign policy can be summed up as follows: He will stand tall against rivals and enemies abroad, he won’t take any guff from the Chinese, Russians or Iranians, and he will never – and he means never – apologize for American values. He also vows to keep America strong by opposing sharp cuts in the Pentagon budget, though he neglected to even mention the bravery of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan during his acceptance speech at the national convention.
But by conflating a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo early Tuesday morning that condemned and apologized for an offensive, anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S., which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in the administration subsequently led to the violence and death, Romney and his advisers appeared either opportunistic or intellectually dishonest.
SHOOT FIRST, AIM LATER
Even after it became clear that the embassy statement was unrelated to the deaths of Stevens and the others, Romney denounced Obama for not defending the filmmaker’s free speech rights at a news conference Wednesday morning in Jacksonville, Fla. “Apology for America’s values is never the right course,” he said. Obama wasted no time in returning fire, telling CBS News, “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
John Ullyot, a veteran Republican strategist, said that, coming on the heels of increasingly bad economic news, Romney’s pivot was a self-inflicted wound.
“It’s developed into another distraction that has put foreign policy, not a strong suit for the GOP ticket this time, front and center in an uncomfortable way in a campaign that is becoming less and less about the administration’s job record,” he told The Fiscal Times Thursday.
Earlier in the week, former Republican New York Gov. George Pataki offered similar concerns that Romney desperately needed to sharpen his economic message so that the average middle-class family in Ohio can understand it. “He has an excellent economic plan, but it’s 57 pages long, with so many points,” Pataki told MSNBC. “We need to distill it down to a thing that’s simple to understand and that connects to people.”
Veteran GOP political strategist Eddie Mahe staunchly defended Romney’s statement on the Middle East, saying the former governor was speaking up for freedom of speech and other American values after demonstrators in Cairo tore down the U.S. flag. “He had the same thoughts as I’m sure a solid majority of Americans had when they heard about the [embassy] apology” for the offensive video, he said. “I think it was an honest, sincere reaction on his part.”
Whit Ayres, another long-time Republican strategist, insists that the squabble over the response to the demonstrations and deaths in the Middle East will fade and that economic issues will once again come to the fore as Romney and Obama head into three presidential debates scheduled in the coming weeks. Those three debates – on Oct. 3 in Denver, Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla., are taking on added importance as Romney tries to overcome the president’s slender lead in the polls.
The first debate will focus on domestic policies, the second – a townhall style event – will offer a mix of domestic and foreign policy questions, and the final debate will almost exclusively focus on foreign policy.
“Inevitably, foreign events can raise their heads and dominate discussion for 24 to 48 hours when you’re running for president of the United States,” Ayres said. “But I can’t imagine – barring additional major events involving Americans– that it will end up dominating the election on Nov. 6. I still think the economy is overwhelmingly the dominant issue and will remain the dominant issue, barring additional unforeseen events.”
THE GAP WIDENS
The Democratic Party now ties the GOP in Americans’ perceptions of which party would better safeguard the U.S. against terrorism – erasing a Republican advantage, according to the Gallup Organization. Americans also see Democrats as better at keeping the country prosperous, which can’t be good news for Romney.
During an appearance at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Va., early yesterday, Romney offered condolences to the families and friends of the four fallen U.S. envoys, then tried to steer the conversation back to the economy.
“Today we saw the headlines in USA Today and it said that the median income in America has dropped by $4,300 per family,” Romney said. “So these are tough times for American families that have work. Then you have 23 million people who are out of work, or [who have] stopped looking for work or are underemployed. These are tough times. But your optimism is my optimism. America is coming back.
We’re going to make sure that we have the jobs that we need. America is going to remain strong.”