If Mitt Romney began this week with a misstep over foreign policy—accusing President Barack Obama of “sympathizing” with the people who attacked the American embassy in Cairo—then he has ended it with a misstep over class. In an interview with Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos, he said that “middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.” Here’s the full context:
President Obama’s convention bounce shows no sign of subsiding. Yesterday’s Fox News poll shows him with a five-point lead over Romney among likely voters—48 to 43 percent—and he continues to lead in the Gallup tracking poll, which shows him with a six lead over the Republican nominee, 50 to 44 percent.
In need of just a bit more Romneystrength. (Flickr/Jason Means)
Until a few days ago, few people cared all that much what Mitt Romney thought about foreign policy. It isn't an area where he has any experience, or, let's be honest, anything in particular to say. His denunciations of President Obama's record have a kind of rote quality. There's nothing really substantive there, no attacks on any particular decisions Obama has made or initiatives he has undertaken. What it all consists of is the idea that Obama is weak, and "apologizes for America" (I'm not going to bother debunking that one again). But when Mitt goes off on that stuff, you can tell he's just doing it to satisfy the Sean Hannitys of the world and assure the Republican base that yes, I hate him as much as you do, and now let's talk about the economy.
But in every presidential race, there are external events that force the candidates to change their agenda, which is what has happened now. And yesterday the Washington Post published this article, in which we learn just how powerful Mitt Romney could be:
Advisers to Mitt Romney on Thursday defended his sharp criticism of President Obama and said that the deadly protests sweeping the Middle East would not have happened if the Republican nominee were president.
The big news today wasn’t Mitt Romney’s continued fumbling over foreign policy (for which Team Romney is surely grateful). It was the Federal Reserve’s decision to embark on a new round of quantatative easing. For the uninitated, quantatative easing—or QE to the cool kids—is a strategy for generating growth in the economy. Right now, the problem in the economy is a lack of demand. Consumers aren’t spending, and so businesses aren’t hiring, and so banks are not lending, and so on. One way to deal with this is to provide income to people, throw out benefits, tax cuts, or public works—i.e., stimulus.
Do reporters dislike Mitt Romney? And if so, what kind of a difference might that make? I'm prompted to ask by this post from Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, in which he expresses doubt that back in 2000, reporters disliked Al Gore and liked George W. Bush. I won't spend time on that question—it has been extensively reported over the years, with not only quantitative analyses of the press coverage the two received, but plenty of on-the-record comments from reporters who were there at the time testifying that they and their colleagues found Bush to be a friendly fellow and thought Gore was a pedantic, phony liar. (In his post, Gelman confesses to not owning a television, which obviously calls into question his standing as a true American.) But the more interesting question now is the one about Romney.
This is sometimes difficult to assess clearly, since we all have a tendency to see press coverage that reinforces our beliefs as fair and objective, and coverage that contradicts our beliefs as unfair and biased. Liberals and conservatives both do this, although only conservatives created an entire industry out of crying "liberal bias!" and succeeded in getting virtually everyone on their side to weave that belief into their opinions and rhetoric on every single issue. If you're trying to assess it systematically, "bias" is extremely difficult to measure, particularly on the grounds people usually argue about. Researchers have come up with a variety of measures, but they almost inevitably leave important questions unanswered, in part because we usually have an implicit standard of objectivity we're referencing, and that standard raises questions that are hard to answer.
Eight years ago, innumerable commentators said "values voters"—in other words, voters with conservative values—were responsible for George W. Bush's re-election (liberal voters, apparently, don't have values, they just have opinions). They noticed a correlation between religiosity and the propensity to vote Republican, and in the most religious of all industrialized countries, this "God gap" was routinely characterized as a problem that Democrats had to solve if they were to avoid electoral doom. In fact, today the "God gap" is more of a wash for the two parties, and in the future it could become the Republicans' problem.
If the current wave of Republican criticism of Mitt Romney—due to his ideological uncertainty and the general incompetence of his campaign—keeps up, here’s a suggestion for a replacement candidate: Viktor Orban.
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."
"I would point out that we have one president at a time and one administration at a time," President Obama said in June, responding to a critical op-ed by a Romney adviser in a German newspaper. "And I think traditionally, the notion has been that America’s political differences end at the water’s edge.” The president was merely restating one of the nation's oldest remaining traditions of bipartisan comity. The op-ed kerfuffle was, of course, absolutely nothing compared to the Romney campaign's latest break from that tradition.
It appears that Team Romney is hardening its stance on the protests in Egypt and the attack in Libya. In a press conference this morning, Romney repeated the message of his initial press release, saying that “the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our Embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions” and that “it’s never too early for the United States government to condemn acts on Americans and to defend our values.”
Last night, an armed mob—angry over an American-made video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad—attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with three of his staff members. This came after a similar uprising in Egypt, where protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. Initial reports on the situation—which revealed the death of a U.S. official—were followed by this statement from the Romney campaign:
“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.
Time was when the political woods were full of Joe Bidens—super-gregarious retail politicians who could yell themselves hoarse at one campaign stop about how the rich and powerful are screwing everybody over, then in the next town go all quiet and sincere and wring tears from even the toughest characters in the crowd. Those old-style pols lived to campaign, and they campaigned for their lives—especially back in the way-old days when political speechifying was a major form of entertainment in many parts of the country.
If there’s anything anyone remembers about the 2004 election, it’s the Bush campaign’s vicious attacks on John Kerry’s foreign policy record. From his Iraq War vote to his decorated service in Vietnam, the Bush campaign worked to tarnish Kerry’s bona fides and present him as someone unfit to lead the country during a time of war. By the end of the election, when the polls were still close, Team Bush was openly floating the idea that the United States would face a terrorist attack if Kerry was elected president.