Presidential campaigns sometimes turn on big moments that help voters ponder the central question they have about every challenger: What would this person actually be like as president?
These aren’t the same as gaffes, which are slips of the tongue that may be politically damaging but say little about the candidates except that they misspoke.
I’m talking instead about critical moments of miscalculation — often made in desperation — that illuminate important truths about a politician.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater ardently defended extremism. In 1984, Walter Mondale said he would raise taxes. In 2008, John McCain suspended his campaign to work on the economic crisis and then offered no solutions for it. They all lost.
Now we have Mitt Romney, with astonishingly poor timing, trying to profit politically from tragic events in the Middle East. His remarks on Libya and Egypt at a news conference in Jacksonville, Florida, might or might not hurt his chances with pivotal independent voters in November. But we do know that he has managed to be simultaneously unpresidential, untruthful and unwise.
On the morning of Sept. 12, the world learned of the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979. Stevens died when terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. At the same time, angry mobs breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The obvious and proper posture for a serious presidential candidate at that moment of shock and sadness would have been to show the country he could inhabit the role of mourner-in-chief, an important part of being president. Vows of justice are also welcome. Even if Romney couldn’t compete with President Barack Obama on this terrain, he needed to at least appear to be above partisan politics for a day or two.
Instead, Romney doubled down on a scorching statement issued the night before by his campaign that said: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
In Jacksonville, Romney compounded his campaign’s slur with one of his own. “I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions,” he said.
Accusations that the Obama administration is somehow “sympathizing” with terrorists are false and, well, pathetic.
Here’s what the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, run by the Bush-era Ambassador Anne Patterson, wrote after mobs gathered outside in protest against a virulently anti-Muslim film associated with Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones:
The embassy “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” it said. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”