It seems that in every presidential campaign there comes a moment when it becomes very clear that we have reached a turning point. The choice becomes clear, and from that point on, it becomes a matter of running out the clock until the election. It’s essentially over. Usually it’s a gaffe or a mistake on the part of one of the candidates rather than a decisive move: Gerald Ford saying that there was no Soviet domination of Poland in 1976; Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” in 1980; Michael Dukakis’s bland response to a question about capital punishment in 1988, and John McCain’s panic-stricken call to cancel the debates to deal with the financial crisis in 2008. Each of those snapshots, fair or not, went a long way to close the deal — and the door — on the choice in November
It may be too early to judge whether or not Mitt Romney shut the door on his presidential bid yesterday with his kneejerk and blatantly political response to the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Libya and the riots in Cairo. Clearly his campaign saw the events in Libya and Egypt as nothing other than a chance to make political hay, going so far as to release statements bashing the Obama administration before all the facts were known. And when the facts and the timeline became known, including the fact that a senior American diplomat had been killed, Mr. Romney and his staff not only did not back off from their first response, they doubled down on it.
As a lot of people from every aspect of the political spectrum have noted, Mr. Romney’s response raises a lot of questions about his judgment and temperament, not just as a candidate in at tight race, but as a potential leader of the nation. Turning a tragedy into a series of campaign talking points is bad enough, but the failure or unwillingness to retract or temper the remarks as the facts become known reveals a character flaw that should raise a lot of questions. Ironically, Mr. Romney’s reputation as an Etch-A-Sketch on the issues may have come into play; for once he was going to stand his ground even if it was crumbling away underneath his feet.
If Mr. Romney truly believes that President Obama and the White House actually sympathized with the mob that stormed the embassy in Cairo and murdered our ambassador in Libya even though the facts prove otherwise, then he’s showing a serious lack of judgment for someone who wants to be president. If Mr. Romney doesn’t believe that but still goes ahead with it anyway for the sake of his campaign, then he’s showing a degree of cynicism and opportunism that clearly disqualifies him as a leader of all Americans, not just the people who voted for him. In either case it shows us the true measure of his character and trustworthiness, not to mention crisis management and the ability to address a complex and evolving event.
Does any of this matter to the average voter? It may not, but it’s hard to tell immediately. Unlike the Romney campaign, voters take a while to react to events like this. We will know in a few weeks if this moment is the one that marks the end of the Romney campaign, but as I noted previously, there have already been signs that the campaign is in trouble. This may have been the one we’ll all look back on and know that’s when the door slammed shut on Mr. Romney’s run for the White House.