It's been largely forgotten, but in the spring, there was a difficult diplomatic incident involving Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. While delicate negotiations were underway, Mitt Romney jumped in, condemned U.S. officials during their tense diplomatic talks with China, and blasted the "day of shame for the Obama administration."
Soon after, the criticisms looked ridiculous, and even Bill Kristol said Romney appeared "foolish." The Republican candidate, unconcerned with the international implications, thought it'd be smarter to attack first, then get the facts, and then think it through.
When a campaign is struggling and starts to feel as if defeat is likely, the candidate and his or her aides start getting antsy, wondering how to shake things up. It's a dangerous dynamic -- the desperation starts clouding judgments, leading to unnecessary risks that do far more harm than good.
Romney's decision to attack President Obama over Guangcheng fits the model, but the smear involving violent mobs in Libya and Egypt is worse -- not only is it practically a textbook example of a gamble gone horribly awry, but it's unfolding in the campaign's final stretch.
The inexperienced Republican, whose campaign dismissed foreign policy as a "distraction" on 9/11, has managed to look craven, dishonest, and incompetent, all at the same time. Worse, Team Romney managed to pull off this trick twice -- once last night, then again this morning.
Romney's Democratic critics haven't even had to say much, with mainstream pundits issuing many of the most notable condemnations. Even Peggy Noonan, speaking on Fox News, conceded this morning, "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours."
Ben Smith reported that a variety of Republicans are equally disappointed. "They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it's just completely blown up," said a very senior Republican foreign policy hand, who called the statement an "utter disaster" and a "Lehman moment."
Josh Marshall had a good piece on this, arguing that Romney is proving that he's simply "not ready" for the presidency.
Romney's attack was not only ill-judged and ill-timed, it was actually based on what appears to be a demonstrable falsehood. Romney, or folks writing in his name at his campaign, claimed that the administration's first response to the attacks was to issue a press release condemning the anti-Islam film which had helped trigger the attack. This they picked wholesale from the right-wing blogosphere.
In fact, according to all available press reports and the account of the State Department, the press release in question came from the US Embassy in Egypt and preceded the attacks. So to claim it was a response to the attacks was simply false. So while American diplomats were dying in the field, Romney pops up with an egregious attempt to politicize the deaths with a flat out lie.
Behind the curtains a more chaotic and rash picture emerges.
The statement from the Romney campaign was initially released by Romney press secretary Andrea Saul at 10:09 PM -- but under an embargo until midnight on September 12th. In other words, it was embargoed until September 11th was over.
Then a few minutes later at 10:24 PM the embargo was lifted and reporters were told they could use the statement immediately. There was no clear explanation of the change.
Bear in mind, this was all happening while attacks on US personnel abroad were ongoing.... The campaign also authorized Romney's top foreign policy advisor to give a blistering interview attacking the president while the attacks were continuing.
Romney could have begun the process of putting this right this morning, but instead, after falling into a hole, he decided to keep digging.
I don't know if Romney will be elected president in eight weeks, but I do know crude incompetence to this degree is exceedingly rare in national politics.