Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks to Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, August 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
The search for sensible conservatives grows more Sisyphean this election season as Mitt Romney proves increasingly inept at making the case for his own candidacy. A liberal Republican until recently, Romney was never a terribly credible conservative messenger, but defending him has never been quite as complicated as when he sought to exploit an attack on the US embassy in Cairo to revive his failing campaign.
Romney’s foolish intervention arose, as one of his advisers explained to The New York Times (before the quote was inexplicably removed from the paper’s website), because “we felt this was a situation that met our critique.” True, Romney’s statements met a desperate political need. After all, the candidate somehow forgot to mention Al Qaeda or the war in Afghanistan in his Republican National Convention speech. He then compounded the error by explaining that the point of such speeches is that “you talk about the things that you think are important.” He would have been better off talking to an empty chair. But when Romney and his advisers leveled false accusation after false accusation against the president based on mistaken information about what had taken place in Egypt and Libya, his words threatened to inflame an already perilous set of simultaneous crises overseas.
The combination of fecklessness, panic and dishonesty at so crucial a moment proved a kind of tipping point for a few Republicans, including Matthew Dowd, Peggy Noonan, Joe Scarborough, David Frum, Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter and Ed Rogers. Even that inside-dopester and frequent channeler of the wisdom of Karl Rove, Mark Halperin, didn’t find a way to explain why Romney’s misstep “really hurt the Democrats.” Most Republicans, however, sought simply to steer clear of the shipwreck by distancing themselves from Romney’s remarks without explicitly criticizing them. The Team of Silence included convention stars John McCain and Condoleezza Rice, as well as most of the House and Senate party leadership.
What remained were the stalwarts: pundits willing to go where the other right-wingers feared to tread in order to stand by their man. This group—which can be found spouting a mixture of conspiracy-mongering, nativism, racism and (generally speaking) know-nothing anti-intellectual idiocy—ranges from Republican political leaders like Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint, to former Bush officials and their progeny like John Bolton and Liz Cheney, to bloodthirsty professional lunatics like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Significantly, however, this motley crew was joined by what passes for the “brain trust” of the conservative movement: the members of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, National Review’s Rich Lowry, Commentary’s John Podhoretz and former Commentary blogger turned Washington Post right-wing attack dog Jennifer Rubin.
Notably, not one of these supposed smart folk sought to defend Romney’s actual words or actions. A few admitted that the “timing” of his remarks was questionable, and a few others allowed for a lack of precision in his language. But Romney’s real mistake, insisted the Journal editors, was “to offend a pundit class that wants to cede the foreign policy debate to Mr. Obama without thinking seriously about the trouble for America that is building in the world.” William Kristol felt that Romney was correct to “seize on” the 9/11 anniversary “as an occasion to explain the difference between his foreign policy and President Obama’s. He’s right to reject the counsel of the mainstream media, which is to keep quiet and give President Obama a pass.”