What's Kept Romney from Going After Obama on Libya

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Both liberals and conservatives are criticizing President Obama's handling of the U.S. consulate attacks in Libya, so why isn't the Romney campaign? The answer is Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign's embattled chief strategist.

In past profiles, Stevens has been credited as the man responsible for keeping the Romney campaign on-message with regards to the economy. This has even come at the expense of not mentioning other important things like the war in Afghanistan. (In September, Romney was hammered for neglecting to mention the war effort in his RNC speech—an omission that was later attributed to Stevens, who nixed references to the war at the last minute.) Now, according to a report by Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Stevens is vetoing another opportunity to take advantage of a non-economic issue—and this one may be too crucial to pass up.

"For now, Romney and Ryan plan to avoid discussing the Libya attack as an isolated issue," say Allen and VandeHei. "This is basically the Stuart Stevens doctrine. And regardless of the passionate arguments of some other aides, including several outside foreign-policy advisers, the boss is going with Stevens on this until further notice." 

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Like he has in the past, Stuart is insisting that the economy is the fundamental issue of this election and all other issues are a distraction. But campaign insiders are beginning to push back on his absolutism. “If you’re running a campaign and you’re failing, then you’ve got to try to change the subject to something that will help you succeed,” an adviser tells Politico. This dispute follows ubiquitous rumors that Stevens was about to be fired or demoted from the campaign following the disastrous Republican National Convention, as The Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson reported in September:

Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief campaign strategist, has emerged as the main target of finger-pointing within the presidential candidate’s brain trust amid criticism of the campaign’s direction from many Republicans and a slip in swing-state polls ... 

There also is an internal debate, [an] aide said, between those who want to emphasize foreign policy as a winnable argument and those who say it should be used only as a strike against Obama.

While the economy argument may have been a winning argument in September, it's a tougher sell now, as weeks of focusing on the economy have yet to swing polls in Romney's direction. But that's not all. As BuzzFeed's Ben Smith and Zeke Miller have noted, the economy has somewhat collapsed as a political issue due to perceptual biases in how liberals and conservatives are perceiving the state of the economy. (While Republicans think the economy is horrible, Democrats think it's improving, making the Romney message difficult to penetrate beyond the base.)

Beyond that, it's difficult to picture a time when both the The New York Times and the entire conservative blogosphere was hammering the president on an issue, and the campaign didn't take up the cause. As The Times Mark Lander noted over the weekend, "The Obama administration’s shifting accounts of the fatal attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, have left President Obama suddenly exposed on national security and foreign policy, a field where he had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable advantage over Mitt Romney in the presidential race." Still, Romney's not going to take advantage of this? One thing that may become clear later, if Romney does change strategies, it could be a sign that Stevens's "it's the economy" absolutism is finally losing influence within the campaign.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.