By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — NBC News reported on Tuesday morning that Mitt Romney’s campaign was “throwing the kitchen sink” at President Obama: With prospects fading, the Republican challenger was trying any and all lines of attack to see what might stick.
But the problem with throwing the kitchen sink is you might break a pipe — and then you’ve got a real mess.
Such was the soggy condition Romney found himself in Wednesday morning. The previous night, his campaign had fired off a premature statement that falsely accused Obama of apologizing to the people attacking U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
However, the supposed apology — a statement opposing the “misguided individuals” behind a U.S.-produced film that offended Muslims — came out before the attacks, was issued by career diplomats in Cairo without clearance from Washington, and was disavowed by the White House. This misfire became far more serious when news emerged later that the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staffers had been killed in the attacks Romney had just politicized.
Thus did Romney, in a hastily arranged news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., find himself trying to shut off the water.
Did he regret the wording of his false statement?
Why inject himself into a developing crisis?
Would he have handled things differently had he known that the ambassador had been killed?
“I’m not going to take hypotheticals about what would have been known and so forth,” Romney answered to that last question. “We responded last night to the events that happened in Egypt.”
That he did — recklessly.
As Romney has pursued his kitchen-sink strategy this week, he and his party have pivoted from the economy, where Obama is most vulnerable, to national security, where Obama is strongest. The outcome has been a series of dubious attacks.
On Monday, Romney tried to blame the president for scheduled defense-spending cuts put in place by the bipartisan debt deal reached last year. The idea “emanated from the White House, and it will result in the loss of thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of jobs,” he said. Evidently, Romney didn’t consider that this attack contradicted his previous claim that private-sector investment, not big government spending, creates jobs.
About the same time, the Republican National Committee and prominent Republicans such as Dick Cheney and John McCain threw another faulty bit of plumbing at Obama: that the president “does not attend his daily intelligence meeting” more than half the time, in contrast to George W. Bush, who “almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting.” This claim was the work of former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, who writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.
In reality, Obama didn’t “attend” these meetings, because there were no meetings to attend: The oral briefings had been mostly replaced by daily exchanges in which Obama reads the materials and poses written questions and comments to intelligence officials. This is how it was done in the Clinton administration, before Bush decided he would prefer to read less. Bush’s results — Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the failure to find Osama bin Laden — suggest this was not an obvious improvement. The Republicans’ barrage of gaskets, faucets and valves continued Wednesday, with Romney’s dig at Obama, saying he couldn’t “imagine saying no” to a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was based on an Israeli report, denied by the White House, that Obama had turned down a request for a meeting. In this case, at least, the facts were in dispute. On Egypt and Libya, Romney had no such cover.
After Romney’s false statement Tuesday night, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus followed up with a tweet: “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”
Even after news that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had been killed, Romney continued his assault Wednesday morning, saying that “the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt.”
But other top Republicans, including House and Senate leaders, declined to join his criticism of Obama, and the campaign issued talking points to campaign surrogates to try to manage the furor. By Wednesday afternoon, Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, was called upon for clean-up duty.
“This is a time for healing,” Ryan said, without repeating Romney’s broadside.
That sounded presidential. Romney might wish to follow his understudy’s lead — and grab a mop.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.