A lot of Republicans are had a hard time getting Romney’s back Wednesday. It wasn’t just the media who took a look at the timeline of events in Egypt and Libya, and concluded that Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama that directly contradicts that timeline.
But not every Republican steered clear of Romney as he tried to pull his party along to his view of things. A smaller contingent of the GOP is cheering him on, saying it’s about time Romney showed some spine.
“I have no problem at all [with the timing of Romney’s statement],” Christian Whiton, a former George W. Bush administration State Department official and a foreign policy adviser to Newt Gingrich in 2012, told TPM.
Whiton has attacked Team Romney over foreign policy before. He criticized the selection of Paul Ryan last month, arguing Paul lacks foreign policy gravitas. But he said Romney’s response to the crisis in the Middle East has shown some of what Bill Clinton might call “brass” on Romney’s part. Whiton said he welcomed it.
“It might be a little contrarian, but I would argue — and I’ve been a critic of his in the past — that he’s done better with this,” Whiton said. “The president actually has weaknesses on foreign policy that the Republicans have ignored. Romney has not put a team together that can really highlight the difference in the policies. So it’s nice to see some fight in him in pushing back against the statement from the embassy in Cairo.”
Richard Grenell, who was briefly a Romney foreign policy adviser before he was forced out amid conservative outcry over his sexuality and support for same-sex marriage rights, also stood by his old boss.
“The criticism that Mitt Romney defended America too quickly is silly,” he told TPM. On Twitter, Grenell waged war against posts critical of Romney Wednesday.
Romney also had a few defenders on Capitol Hill.
“Gov. Romney is absolutely right,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said in a statement, “there is no justification for these deadly attacks and we should never apologize for American freedom.”
But it Whiton and Grenell were in the minority among Republicans. Romney’s attack on President Obama was roundly criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike, both for its timing and command of the facts.
“I don’t feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors, say in the past few hours, perhaps since last night,” conservative columnist Peggy Noonan told Fox after Romney’s Wednesday morning press conference, where he doubled down on his incorrect timeline. “Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.”
On MSNBC, former NATO ambassador under President George W. Bush and longtime diplomat Nicholas Burns called Romney out.
“This is a time actually to support our government and not cast allegations that are frankly unsubstantiated,” he said. “I see this administration as being very tough-minded about terrorism in the last 24 hours and responding to these events.”
Romney has been on the defensive over foreign policy since his gaffe-filled trip abroad during the Olympics, and Obama has seized the advantage on the issue of national security in polling. Romney’s failure to mention the war in Afghanistan in his convention speech gave Democrats another way in on the topic.
Even before Romney’s widely panned attack on Obama’s response, Romney was facing heat from the right to “sharpen and beef up his [foreign policy message.”
Buzzfeed cited several unnamed Republicans who slammed Romney for his factually baseless attack on Obama’s response to the violence.
“They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up,” one “very senior Republican foreign policy hand” said.
The New Republic published an interview with an unnamed senior adviser to Romney’s last presidential campaign, who accused Romney of operating out of hurt feelings following Sen. John Kerry’s fiery criticism of Romney and Ryan on stage at the Democratic National Convention last week, when the senator accused the GOP ticket of being foreign policy lightweights.
Pundits, too, mostly took Obama’s side. Romney defenders like Whiton and Grenell suggest that Romney’s public battle with the political press and the foreign policy establishment (even the Republican foreign policy establishment) could be a good thing for Romney, who’s still trying to fire up the GOP base.
Outside observers say that sounds like looking too hard to find a silver lining in what’s shaping up to be a major faux pas by Team Romney.
“If selecting the base’s hero of heroes [Paul Ryan] is not enough to seal that deal, what will be?” William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told TPM. “This is not an election that’s going to be swung on foreign policy, short of a crisis. Whether rightly or wrongly, the American people have reached a judgement about Obama’s foreign policy which is pretty favorable. It’s almost inconceivable that anything that Romney, his campaign or the Republican Party can do between now and Election Day will fundamentally alter that judgement.”
Despite the urgings of those on the far right for Romney to dig in on the Middle East attacks, Galston said the best thing the GOP nominee can do is change the subject.
“Just from a political and strategic standpoint, it’s not clear why the Romney campaign is doing what it’s doing,” he said. “In my judgement, every day he spends talking about foreign policy is a day wasted.”