Mitt Romney is being accused of crass political opportunism for speaking up about the attacks on U.S. interests in Egypt and Libya on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. And not just by his political opponents. By Wednesday evening Reuters, in a straight news piece, reported that Romney’s comments “had become a public relations debacle for the Republican’s presidential campaign” and risked being seen as “unsavory political opportunism.”
The lede of the Washington Post story read: “Crises overseas tend to create moments of joint resolve back home, a time to pause from the daily bickering of partisan politics. But as news was streaming in from attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney broke from that protocol.” Other news outlets echoed these sentiments.
The unstated assumption is that Mitt Romney got political while Barack Obama was busy being presidential. That’s not what happened. Overlooked in the media rush to condemn Romney for his comments is the extent to which the Obama campaign – and White House – continued its political activities.
So, some context.
In the early morning hours of 9/11, before any recognition of the solemnity of that day, a tweet went out from Barack Obama’s account that noted: “The election is in 8 weeks. Sign up to volunteer. http://OFA.BO/s3tXFz.” He later tweeted a brief statement acknowledging the anniversary. “As painful as this day is and always will be, it leaves us with the lesson that no act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for – bo.”
A short time later, Obama adviser David Axelrod took to Twitter point out that Sheldon Adelson, a major Romney contributor, would benefit under a Romney presidency. “Yowza! Adelson bets big on Romney, and under Mitt’s tax scheme, the casino mogul would walk off with a $2 billion pot.”
In the early afternoon, after a report from Ha’aretz that Obama had rejected a request for a meeting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a senior administration official acknowledged on background that with an election six weeks away the president had political interests and obligations that would be keeping him busy.
Later in the day, Politico reported that the Obama campaign was releasing a blistering new ad accusing the Romney-Ryan ticket of being “dangerous” for women. The ad opens in Obama’s voice: “I’m Barack Obama and I approved this message.” Then, young woman wearing her concern on her face, says: “Mitt Romney’s position on women’s health – it’s dangerous.” She accuses Romney and Ryan of seeking to “take away our basic health care.”
Tuesday evening, as news was streaming in from attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya, Bill Clinton offered harsh attacks of Republicans to a crowd of more than 2,000 at an Obama campaign rally in south Florida. Clinton spent much of his speech demagoguing Medicare. But he also accused Romney and his party of a “militant, bitter anti-govermnent strategy.”
(Romney, meanwhile, gave a speech to the National Guard that largely avoided politics, and Paul Ryan dropped by a fire station in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and a campaign office in Waukesha.)
Shortly after midnight, just a few hours after the Bill Clinton’s event was finished, Obama campaign press secretary Ben La Bolt responded to the Romney campaign statement criticizing Obama. “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.”
On Wednesday morning, Romney gave a press conference and reiterated his critique of Obama’s handling of the situations in Libya and Egypt. A short time later, President Obama read a statement from the Rose Garden, lamenting the loss of life in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. It was but a short pause from the daily bickering of partisan politics.
Not long after his Rose Garden statement, Obama sat for an interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. Kroft asked Obama for his thoughts on Romney’s criticism. Obama said: “I think most Americans, Democrats or Republicans, understand that there are times where we set politics aside, and one of those is when we've got a direct threat to American personnel who are overseas.”
A few hours later, shortly after 2:00 p.m., Obama boarded Air Force One for Las Vegas, the first stop in a two-day campaign swing that includes a stop in Golden, Colorado, on Thursday. The campaign that never really stopped was back on. At a press gaggle en route, a reporter asked a question of White House press secretary, Jay Carney.
“This is not a time to try to score political points. As the President said, as a general practice, politics should be put aside when the lives of American personnel are at risk, as they were last night.”
So, when Clinton was speaking or when the campaign was unveiling its abortion ad? Carney didn’t say.
Another reporter asked a question of Jen Psaki, a spokesman for the Obama campaign. “Can you just elaborate a little bit more of what we can expect from the president at the event later today? Should we still be thinking of this as a campaign rally?”
“This is still a campaign event,” she said, noting that the “tone will reflect events of the last 24 hours.” Obama, she continued, “will talk about his vision for the future of the country, including many of the steps that he talked about last Thursday” – in his address at the Democratic National Convention.
She concluded this way: “When we arrive, the President will deliver remarks to Obama for America’s National Volunteer Leaders video conference. This is a monthly conference that provides OFA team leaders with national campaign updates and serves as an opportunity for the leaders and volunteers to interact and share insights. He will also take a few questions, and you’ll have the opportunity to hear that, view that as well.”
Indeed, at the event for campaign supporters in Las Vegas, Obama acknowledged the losses in Libya and drew parallels between the difficulties overseas and the campaign here at home. “The sacrifices that our troops and our diplomats make are obviously very different from the challenges that we face here domestically but like them, you guys are Americans who sense that we can do better than we're doing....I'm just really proud of you.”
If Mitt Romney had consulted me, I would have recommended waiting to comment. On the one hand, there's no better place to debate these big issues than a presidential campaign; in a sense, it's why we have campaigns. But I'm more sympathetic to the view that Jay Carney articulated -- that politics ought to stop at the water's edge and that criticism of the commander-in-chief in the midst of a crisis is best kept quiet.
But Romney never asked. And, in any event, there was no pause.
So as the media pound Mitt Romney for allegedly violating the inviolable space around 9/11 and difficulties overseas, remember this about Barack Obama. He sought campaign volunteers and his top adviser launched a harsh attack on Romney early on 9/11. His top surrogate, Bill Clinton, let loose a tough attack on Romney and entitlements that evening. Obama rejected a meeting with a key ally potentially on the verge of war at least in part because he might need to be campaigning at the end of the month. And after a pause of his campaign activities that lasted approximately 14 ½ hours, the president resumed his normal campaign schedule with a trip to Las Vegas, where gave a speech that echoed his address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last week.
Who’s being political?