The New York Times spelled out its habit of trying to wrong-foot Mitt Romney on Thursday's front page coverage of the violence in Egypt and Libya. The banner headline over Thursday's front page, "Attack On U.S. Site In Libya Kills Envoy; A Flash Point For Obama And Romney," ushered in coverage of the attacks on U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt, with the assault in Libya resulting in four deaths, including the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Times reporters Peter Baker and Ashley Parker made sure to follow the media template in characterizing Mitt Romney's criticism of the Obama administration as "clumsy and badly timed and Romney himself as "on the defensive" (twice!) in "A Challenger's Criticism Is Furiously Returned."
The deadly attack on an American diplomatic post in Libya propelled foreign policy to the forefront of an otherwise inward-looking presidential campaign and presented an unexpected test not only to the incumbent, who must manage an international crisis, but also to the challenger, whose response quickly came under fire.
While President Obama dealt with the killings of an ambassador and three other Americans and deflected questions about his handling of the Arab world, Mitt Romney, the Republican seeking his job, wasted little time going on the attack, accusing the president of apologizing for American values and appeasing Islamic extremists.
“They clearly sent mixed messages to the world,” Mr. Romney told reporters during a campaign swing through Florida.
But Mr. Romney came under withering criticism for distorting the chain of events overseas and appearing to seek political advantage from an attack that claimed American lives. A statement he personally approved characterized an appeal for religious tolerance issued by the American Embassy in Cairo as sympathy for the attackers even though the violence did not occur until hours after the embassy statement. Mr. Romney on Wednesday said the embassy statement, which was disavowed by the administration, was “akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation.”
Mr. Obama fired back later in the day, accusing his opponent of politicizing a national tragedy. “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” he told CBS News for its “60 Minutes” program. “And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that -- that, you know, it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you’ve thought through the ramifications.”
For Mr. Romney, whose 2010 book, “No Apology,” assailed Mr. Obama for what he saw as trying to placate America’s enemies, the embassy statement rankled. When aides showed it to him, they said he reacted strongly to the notion of “hurt” religious feelings. In his mind, they said, the Obama administration was aligning itself with those who would do harm to the United States. Already on the defensive for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech and losing some ground in recent polls, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity to draw a stark contrast.
The resulting episode was perhaps the most vivid confrontation over events abroad since the general election began taking shape, and it ended up putting Mr. Romney on the defensive as he sought to define his differences with the president and demonstrate his bona fides as a potential commander in chief. The debate over his comments drew attention from questions about how Mr. Obama had managed the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the aftermath of the war in Libya and the broader battle against Islamic extremists. The president has been criticized for not doing more to guide the transition to democracy in the Middle East and to stop religious extremists from coming to power.
In the midst of that, White House officials saw Mr. Romney’s denunciation of the Cairo embassy statement. They, too, decided the embassy language went too far without standing firm against potential violence; officials privately told reporters it was not cleared in Washington. The embassy reaffirmed the statement even after protests began, posting a message on Twitter that it “still stands,” but then tried to delete that message.
By Wednesday morning, when it became public that four Americans had been killed in an attack at the mission in Benghazi, Mr. Romney’s initial statement looked clumsy and badly timed to many, and Republicans like Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, and John E. Sununu, the former New Hampshire senator, publicly criticized it.
The Times reliably forwarded Democratic talking points on John McCain and the 2008 campaign.
Democrats pounced. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said Mr. Romney showed “a degree of instability” and demonstrated that “there is almost nothing he won’t do for political gain.” Pundits called it “craven” and a “Lehman moment,” alluding to Senator John McCain’s fumbled handling of the collapse of Lehman Brothers that helped sink his 2008 campaign. Mr. McCain’s longtime adviser Mark Salter chastised Mr. Romney for “unfair and hyperbolic sound bites.”