During last night's debate, when Mitt Romney started to go off on his usual "apology tour" line, President Obama got a little smile on his face. Here it comes, I thought—he knew Romney might say this, and he's got a killer response ready. After all, there may be no single falsehood Romney has repeated more often than this one. It's simply a lie, Mitt Romney knows it's a lie, it's been fact-checked to death so every journalist knows it's a lie, and now at last Obama would smack it down and we wouldn't have to hear it anymore.
No such luck. Obama's response was to assert that Romney's charge is false ("This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign") without explaining why or finding a way to shame Romney for his shamelessness. And the Romney campaign was so pleased they put out an ad today revisiting the moment:
Point out to conservatives that Obama has never apologized for America, and they'll say, "Nuh-uh! What about that time he said America had made mistakes???" If you can't quite grasp the difference between saying that America has made mistakes and apologizing for America, then you can get a job at the Heritage Foundation, or maybe even be given a place of honor at the most important newspaper in the capital.
After the debate, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin took to her blog to proclaim emphatically that Obama has too apologized for America, because every time you criticize George W. Bush that's what you're doing. I kid you not: "Liberals don’t even see that Obama’s excoriating his predecessor is apologizing for this nation, but of course it is. George W. Bush wasn’t acting as a private citizen, and whatever he actions he took were done in the name of the United States." That she seems not to have anticipated the comeback that any not-exceptionally-bright seventh-grader would offer—if any criticism of a president is apologizing for America, what does that make Mitt Romney?—is evidence that though there are many ideologically committed opinion-mongers, being a true soul-withering partisan hack requires a level of intellectual dishonesty that would make most of us want to pluck our own eyes out. Rubin, however, soldiers on.
And let's look at the end of Romney's statement, which is something he has said many times before: "You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators." I suppose I understand the urge to pump your fist and shout, "America! Yeah!" But not only are those two things not even remotely mutually exclusive, can there possibly be a single sane person who thinks that America has not dictated to other nations? Mitt Romney's whole foreign policy schtick is that we're not dictating to other nations enough. Aren't we dictating to Iran whether they should have nuclear weapons? That kind of dictating may be a good idea, but it's still dictating. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have agreed that America can dictate whatever we want to whomever we want whenever we want, often through the means of a persuasive invasion. Sometimes we say it's for their own good and sometimes we say it's to protect ourselves, but it's always dictating.
I've been trying as much as possible to understand where conservatives are coming from and grant that their arguments are offered sincerely. But sometimes they make it difficult.