The Danger of "Scoring Points"

Mitt Romney is running for president. And I guess it can be hard, when you're running for president and your focus every day is convincing the American voter that you're a great guy and your opponent is awful, not to approach every new development in the world by seeing it as yet another opportunity to tell everyone that your opponent is awful. But when the only question you ask yourself is, "How can I use this to make my opponent look bad?" you run the risk of making yourself look like a jerk. Sometimes during a campaign, a candidate will be asked, "Is there anything your opponent has done that you agree with?" or "Is there anything good you can say about him?" Usually they say, "He has a lovely family," as though the thought that he might have done a single thing right is just impossible to contemplate. To say otherwise would be passing up an opportunity to "score points."

And this, I think, is the root of why Romney did what he did yesterday and came out looking like such an asshole. American civil servants had died in the line of duty, and the only thing he could think to do was use it as the occasion for a weak, unpersuasive attack on Barack Obama, delivered at an appallingly inappropriate moment. All he wanted was to "score points."

Romney seems to be laboring under the mistaken belief that his challenge on foreign policy is to make voters think poorly of Barack Obama. In fact, his challenge on foreign policy is to make voters consider him a credible president. That's really all. As long as they think Romney would be reasonable on foreign policy, which is a secondary consideration for almost all of them anyway, it would be enough. Romney is just never going to be able to argue persuasively that Obama has been a foreign policy disaster, and he doesn't have to. Four years ago the average voter thought the sitting president was such a disaster, committing blunder after blunder and undermining American interests around the world. But today only the most partisan Republican believes that, and Romney no longer needs to appeal to partisan Republicans.

At times of crisis and tragedy, Americans want our leaders to channel the emotions we're feeling and be the people we want ourselves to be. That's why, for instance, the best moment of George W. Bush's presidency was when he stood on top of the rubble at the World Trade Center and said, "I hear you, the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." For all the spectacular screw-ups that came afterward, at that moment Bush perfectly expressed Americans' anger and their desire to be strong and resilient (and take revenge). That's why his approval ratings shot up to over 90 percent.

Mitt Romney failed to realize that when Americans are killed overseas, it's not like every other thing that happens during a campaign. According to The New York Times, Romney's reaction to the violence was actually the product of a lengthy discussion with his aides, during which I guess they agreed that what really mattered in this situation was not so much that American officials had been killed, but that a statement released by the Cairo embassy could, with the proper disingenuous description of the chronology involved, be described as some kind of weakness and "apologizing" and also attributed directly to Barack Obama. It sounds utterly insane, but that's the conclusion they came to.

What they obviously didn't do was take a moment to put themselves in the shoes of a typical American. Was the typical American going to learn of these events and say, "What really has me steamed isn't the murders in Benghazi, it's that statement the Cairo embassy put out." Of course not. Instead, the typical American voter ended up watching Romney and saying, "For cripe's sake, Americans died, all because of some insane amateurish movie, and this is what you have to say? To come out and whine about how the Obama administration handled a frigging tweet sent out by an embassy staffer? Are you kidding me? What a jackass."

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