As Romney himself noted moments later, this is a presidential campaign, and everything is fair game, especially when events provide the candidates with opportunities to air their honest differences in ways that can be illuminating to the electorate. But his comments struck a sour note in light of the fact that the Egypt embassy's statement condemning those who would attempt "to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" had long since been disavowed by the administration.
Romney was undeterred, saying the president is responsible for statements from embassies, and that the White House's distancing itself from the statement only "reflect[ed] the mixed signals they're sending to the world." It seemed no matter what the administration did, Romney would find fault with it, and his fixation on doing so seemed to overshadow his stated concern for the lives lost in the attacks. (The Romney campaign's rationale for the tough tone was that it needed to seize the offensive on a pressing national issue.)
The pundits' judgment was harsh. Time's Mark Halperin said Romney's "doubling down on criticism of the President for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign." A senior Republican told BuzzFeed's Ben Smith it was Romney's "Lehman moment," a reference to John McCain's hasty reaction to the 2008 financial crisis -- a turning point in the last presidential campaign. Conservative pundit Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Caller, "The problem with Mitt Romney continues to be Mitt Romney," comparing his reaction to the way Michael Dukakis was parodied as "weak and passionless" on Saturday Night Live. On Fox News, conservative commentator and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said, "In times of great drama and heightened crisis ... I always think discretion is the better way to go," saying Romney was leaving himself open to accusations of politicizing a tragedy. "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours," she said. Though Romney had his defenders as well, the gelling consensus was clearly against him.
Foreign policy has always been a tough spot for Romney. He has to contend with both Obama's perceived strength on the issue -- 58 percent approve of the president's handling of terrorism, according to Gallup -- and his own party's internal divisions on international affairs. His stances on foreign issues have frequently been muddled, from his shifting position on Libya to his sometimes confusing criticism of the administration's Afghanistan policy.
Romney would prefer to downplay foreign policy and focus on the economy instead, but Democrats have already shown they're not going to let him: Witness John Kerry's brutal speech at last week's Democratic convention, in which he called Romney and vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan "the most inexperienced foreign-policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades." Or look at the attacks Democrats have recently mounted over Romney's failure to mention Afghanistan during his Republican convention address -- and his clumsy response, in a Fox News interview: "You talk about the things that you think are important."