How to pick a losing fight

If the economy is his meal ticket, why is Mitt Romney picking a fight he can't win?

Published September 13, 2012 12:08PM (EDT)

        (AP/Charles Dharapak)
(AP/Charles Dharapak)

In the wake of the first Gulf War, which pushed then-President George H.W. Bush’s approval score to the 90 percent range, one of the Democrats who had backed the military action had a warning for his party.

“My party can’t win the next presidential election on foreign policy,” Stephen Solarz, then a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “but we can lose it on foreign policy.”

It was advice that Bill Clinton, who ran with Solarz’s support, took. In his race against Bush, Clinton largely avoided picking fights on international issues, playing up his own support for the Gulf War and picking a running mate, Al Gore, who had voted for it in the Senate.

To most Americans, the question of which candidate would be better at handling foreign policy was a no-brainer; a late-September poll showed Bush leading on the subject by a 73-20 percent margin. But for all of the momentous international events that had played out on Bush’s watch, foreign policy wasn’t at the heart of voters’ concerns in 1992. The economy was, and Clinton worked diligently to capitalize on Bush’s weaknesses there, ultimately producing a 6-point victory.

In many ways, Mitt Romney’s November chances depend on the same formula Clinton used. The margin isn’t as gaping as it was in ’92, but Barack Obama enjoys a clear advantage on the subject of foreign policy, the result of a presidency that’s been marked by the killing of Osama bin Laden, the end of the Iraq war, and no major terrorist incidents on American soil. An ABC News/Washington Post poll a few weeks ago gave Obama a 48-37 percent edge over Romney on foreign affairs, a jarring break from the recent past, when the GOP enjoyed a clear advantage on the subject. Meanwhile, the same poll showed that 54 percent of voters disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy.

This is what makes Romney’s response to this week’s violence in Cairo and Benghazi so baffling. A new report in the New York Times claims that his campaign’s initial statement Tuesday night, which assailed the Obama White House for a statement issued by the Cairo embassy before any violence had erupted, was the result of a coordinated effort by his senior staff, with the candidate’s approval. In other words, this wasn’t the case of a lone staffer making bad knee-jerk reaction to the demands of the 24-hour news cycle; blasting Obama before all of the facts were in was a deliberate, candidate-approved strategy.

The political disaster this has created for Romney is well-documented. As the media focused on the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Romney’s attack created a second major story line, one that cast him as irresponsible and erratic – “someone who seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” as Obama put it in a CBS News interview last night. Some on the right rallied around him, but what was most notable on Wednesday was how many prominent Republicans weren’t willing to echo his criticisms on Obama.

The situation in the Middle East is highly volatile (there are reports this morning of protesters trying to storm the U.S. embassy in Yemen) and it’s certainly possible that events will spin out of control in a way that wounds Obama’s domestic political standing. But for now, the political impact of this week’s events is simple: It’s reinforced the leadership gap between the president and his challenger.

This is an entirely self-inflicted wound for Romney. He didn’t have to issue any statement at all on Tuesday night, and whenever he did speak, it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to stick to expressing grief over the lives lost and desire to bring those responsible to justice. To the extent he has genuine policy differences with Obama on foreign affairs, he could easily have found a less inflammatory time and way to express them. More than anything, though, his chances of winning are tied to the economy. Like Clinton in ’92, he really can’t win on foreign policy. So why is he straining so hard?

It may just be that he and those around him don’t grasp how the politics of foreign policy have changed in the Obama era – that the rhetoric Republicans routinely deployed against Democrats for the last decade doesn’t resonate anymore. There’s also the profound disconnect between the Obama caricature that the right has embraced – a weak, constantly vacillating leader who travels the world apologizing to other countries on America’s behalf – and the leader that the rest of the country sees. As Jonathan Chait theorized on Wednesday:

The miscalculation at work here is that Romney believed his “Apology Tour” method would neatly fit the events at hand — take an event that sort of vaguely resembled an Obama apology to Muslims who don’t like us, twist it around, and call it a day. But Romney had grown accustomed to spinning fantasies cobbled together from months-old Obama speeches and nurtured into legend by extensive repetition and exaggeration in the conservative subculture. What he failed to realize from the outset was that the embassy attack was an immediate, high-profile event that he could not hope to rewrite so brazenly.

Whatever the rationale, Rommey has picked a fight that – for the moment, anyway – there’s no way he can win.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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