When is a condemnation not a condemnation? When it comes from Mitt Romney, framed as a statement of disappointment with a right-wing entertainer-pundit.
On Tuesday, Democrats highlighted comments made by conservative shock rocker Ted Nugent at the NRA convention over the weekend, briefly forcing the general election campaign into yet another disavowal-off. The Romney campaign played along, but with minimal effort — it blamed both sides for Nugent’s comments, with language nearly identical to its blame-both-sides statement on offensive comments made by Rush Limbaugh earlier this year.
The Nugent incident took the rhetoric war to another level: Not only were the comments at issue made by a certified endorser touted by Romney, they were serious enough to pique the interest of the Secret Service. But the response garnered only the typical Romney treatment when it comes to conservatives with a history of incendiary remarks: Leave the condemnations to someone else, everyone’s guilty.
During a panel discussion at the NRA convention in St. Louis on Sunday, Nugent went on a tirade about President Obama and Democrats in general. Right Wing Watch posted the video:
Nugent called President Obama a criminal and denounced his “vile, evil America-hating administration” which is “wiping its ass with the Constitution.” Taking it a step further, he said that “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” “If you can’t galvanize and promote and recruit people to vote for Mitt Romney, we’re done,” he continued.
This caught the attention of the Secret Service, which told New York magazine, “We are aware of it, and we’ll conduct an appropriate follow up.” (Nugent later told a radio show, “I’ve never in my life threatened anyone’s life.”)
Romney reportedly actively sought Nugent’s endorsement and announced it to great fanfare when it came. Democrats blanched, pointing to Nugent’s long history of disturbing rhetoric aimed at President Obama and other prominent Democrats.
On their heels after being forced to respond comments made by CNN contributor Hilary Rosen about Ann Romney just days earlier, Democrats quickly took note of the NRA incident, calling on Romney to condemn Nugent. In due course, the DNC posted a web video of Romney talking up The Nuge and sent out releases calling for Romney to respond. (The White House, however, steered clear.)
Team Romney was forced into the same position as when Limbaugh attacked law student Sandra Fluke: Condemn a popular right-wing icon for the sake of appealing to the general electorate?
During the Fluke affair, Romney distinguished himself by issuing a remarkably tepid denunciation of Limbaugh, even as many of his fellow Republicans turned on the radio host. “I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used,” he said.
Democrats excoriated Romney for that one, but the Romney campaign stuck to its guns when pressed.
“I think there is extreme rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstom said of Limbaugh, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I think the political process is best served if everybody tones it down. Not only those on the right, but also intolerant voices on the left.”
Team Romney said essentially the same thing in response to Nugent’s remarks:
“Divisive language is offensive no matter what side of the political aisle it comes from,” Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul told TPM. “Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil.”
Democrats were unimpressed.
“That has got to be the weakest, most meaningless reaction imaginable,” DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse told TPM. “Nugent’s comments were violent and were shocking and beyond the pale — and if Mitt Romney can’t condemn him in no uncertain terms he is not prepared to lead.”