Mitt Romney’s stinging blasts at President Barack Obama in the wake of attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya and Egypt was a vivid illustration of how much American politics has changed.
The tactic is a break with American campaign history. While debates over wars have raged in campaigns – in 1916 and 1940 over Europe, in 1968 over Vietnam, in 2004 over Iraq – presidential politics traditionally stopped at least temporarily in times of crisis or emergency. Candidates such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and John Kerry all chose to still their partisan rhetoric at least temporarily during such moments.
Not this time.
The Egypt and Libya crises began erupting earlier this week as protesters apparently grew incensed over an American-produced video they believed insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
Early Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement that appeared to criticize the American video in an effort to defuse the protests.
“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," it said. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
About eight hours later, it was reported that an American worker at the U.S. consulate compound in Libya had been killed. Two hours after that, around 10 p.m. EDT, Romney condemned the attacks in Libya and Egypt and seized on the embassy statement issued before the attacks to lambaste Obama.
“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,” he said.
His campaign requested the statement not be released until after midnight on the East Coast, once Sept. 11, a day of reflection, was over. Romney withheld the statement only briefly, releasing it around 10:25 p.m.
At the White House, officials said the embassy statement did not reflect the government’s views, and shortly after midnight, the Obama campaign fired back.
Some Republicans echoed the criticism, suggesting that Obama had apologized to the people who had attacked Americans in Libya or stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
“Our embassy is attacked and our flag destroyed and Obama apologizes,” Newt Gingrich tweeted Wednesday.
“Obama apologized to the Egyptian rioters,” wrote Republican strategist Rich Galen.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a Foreign Affairs subcommittee chairman, demanded an “immediate apology to the American people” for the initial embassy statement, and party chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”
In past campaigns, presidential challengers traditionally waited to comment.
In 1980, a U.S. effort to rescue the Iran hostages failed, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans. Ronald Reagan was still vying with George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination, while Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. All urged national unity and sympathy for the dead.
Reagan, an iconic figure to the conservatives rallying behind Romney today, said at a news conference, "This is a difficult day for all of us Americans. . . . It is time for us . . . to stand united. It is a day for quiet reflection . . . when words should be few and confined essentially to our prayer.”
Twenty years later, George W. Bush was running against Vice President Al Gore when terrorists attacked the Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. The mid-October attack occurred a day after they had debated. Bush urged sympathy for the victims’ families and said the Clinton administration should learn the facts so appropriate action could be taken.
No question, 2012 politics is very different.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, recalled on Wednesday how that August the Bush administration imposed a “Code Orange,” or high threat level, a few days after Kerry’s convention acceptance speech for parts of the New York and Washington areas. Some Democrats questioned the timing; Kerry would not.
During that campaign, Kerry also recalled, “there were things that I had been briefed about but were impossible to talk about.”
By Wednesday morning, news had broken that four Americans, including Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Conservative writer Peggy Noonan told Fox News that Romney should have used more discretion. Republican elected officials kept their comments statesmanlike; House Speaker John Boehner issued a brief statement expressing regret for the loss of life.
Democrats were angry. Kerry told reporters that Romney’s comments “are about as inappropriate as anything I’ve ever seen at this kind of a moment.”
“They demonstrate an insensitivity and lack of judgment about what is happening right now,” Kerry said. “To make those kind of statements before you even know the facts, before families have been notified, before things have played out, is really not just inexperienced, it’s irresponsible, it’s callous, it’s reckless, and I think he ought to apologize and I don’t think he knows what he is talking about, frankly.”
Romney would not relent. While expressing regret Wednesday for the loss of life, he said the administration was wrong “to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions.”
“It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans, and to defend our values. The White House distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn’t ‘cleared by Washington.’ That reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world,” he said.
Obama made a statement at the White House, and later Wednesday he headed to Nevada for a campaign event.
The debate raged on.
“Around the country, most people may very well feel Romney is absolutely right,” said Republican consultant Keith Appell. “They feel we have looked weak for far too long.”
But John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, thought Romney may have lost a chance to look presidential.
“There are times when you just have to cede the president the mike,” said Geer.
Such thoughts may be history.
“The world has changed. People want immediate reaction,” said Appell. “Who’s to say today you should abide by the old standards?”