This piece originally appeared on The New Republic's website Wednesday.
(The New Republic) The verdict is in on Romney's response to the embassy attacks in Libya and Egypt, and it's not been kind to the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney, in case you somehow missed it, seized on a U.S. embassy statement cautioning against "efforts ... to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" and pronounced it "disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks ... but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." (He doubled down on the criticism this morning.) The mainstream media promptly proclaimed the response "over the top," while Republican foreign policy hands griped that it was a "Lehman moment" and exposed Team Romney as "not ready for prime time." Peggy Noonan, normally a reliable partisan, told Fox News that "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours, say since last night" and that "sometimes when bad things happen... cool words or no words, may be the way to go." Even Romney's allies in Congress seemed to implicitly distance themselves from his comments.
It's worth stipulating that Team Romney's political instincts weren't entirely off-the-wall. Any time there's a deadly attack on American officials abroad, it's reasonable to ask if the president deserves blame. No one would begrudge Romney for raising the question. But the tone and timing of the criticism were self-defeating in ways large and small. Small because, as the news accounts have pointed out, the U.S. embassy statement came before the start of the protests in Cairo and Libya -- however ham-handed, it was an attempt to preemptively defuse them, an impulse no one can begrudge an embassy official under threat of violence, not an after-the-fact apologia. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had actually disavowed the statement before Romney released his own critique. (Yes, the Romney campaign can legitimately ask why it took 16 hours to walk back the flaccid statement, which did fill the vacuum left by the administration's silence. But, you know, they had a few things on their plate. In any case, it's not clear how a rhetorical escalation would have calmed the situation.)
The larger problem is that there just wasn't any percentage in the move for Romney. If the attacks turn out to expose a major failing on the part of the administration, we'll know about it soon enough, at which point Romney will be free to criticize relentlessly. And if the attacks rally the public behind the president -- already there are suggestions of an Al Qaeda plot in Libya, which could require retaliation -- then Romney will be isolated and exposed.
All of which raises the question: What was Team Romney thinking? I'm not really sure, but I happened to speak this morning to a senior Romney adviser from a previous campaign who offered his own theory. According to this person, Romney may have been feeling defensive over the hazing he took in Charlotte last week -- "my opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy," the president tweaked him -- and was primed to hit back. "They set him up Thursday night at the convention with the smack down on foreign policy," says the former adviser. "They called him naive, Palin-esque. Then he got his back up about it and was waiting for opportunity to show, 'I'm strong, too.'"
The adviser has no direct, inside knowledge of the campaign's thinking on this matter. But he does have a good read on Romney -- a man with a healthy sense of pride, and who's already invested in the idea of Obama as an appeaser. It was the only plausible explanation the adviser could think of for how "they stepped in it," in his words. "I always thought it was a one-two punch [by the Obama campaign]," the adviser continued. "Punch one was Thursday night. Punch two would be in the foreign policy debate. To cast Romney as naif, an empty suit on foreign policy, and tie him to Bush -- as a puppet of the bow-tied hawks of the Bush administration. ... This intervening event was gravy."
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic, where he writes about politics and Obama administration economic policy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.