What a difference a day makes. Aside from the 9-11 tributes, most political pundits yesterday were focused on horse race politics — mainly Mitt Romney’s stagnant campaign. There were stories about how Obama is more likable – how he wins the “presidential beer test.”
We were playing small ball. But today, after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, we once again have a September 12 worldview. For the first time since 1979, a U.S. Ambassador has been killed. This is a big deal. (And for a time, it appeared, the U.S. was apologizing!)
The events in Egypt, coupled with claims that the president once again snubbed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have the potential to dramatically shift the presidential race. Just one day ago, the New York Times opinion editor was observing how President Obama had stolen turf that once belonged to Republicans:
For decades Republican presidential candidates have campaigned on stick-to-it-ive-ness, likability and military toughness, and in these areas have generally had the edge on their Democratic opponents.
Think Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter (weak and indecisive) and Walter Mondale (just plain weak), and George H.W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis (unfriendly, weak and indecisive). George W. Bush won out over Al Gore in the “who’d you rather share a beer with?” sweepstakes. The Swift-boating of John Kerry and the relentless attacks on his “flip-flopping” were classics of Republican political warfare.
But this year the Republicans have lost their seemingly natural advantages.
Perhaps not. The embassy attacks evoke obvious references to Jimmy Carter.
Heretofore, Romney has attempted to solely focus this election on the economy. But foreign policy will likely now play a larger role. And while it might be unseemly to say as much, that would be fortuitous for Romney. As I wrote in February,
The trouble for Republican presidential hopefuls trying to make hay of a struggling economy is that, when times are hard, liberals can always out-promise and out-class-warfare their adversaries. Thus, national elections that focus instead on foreign policy or cultural issues have tended to skew more favorably to the GOP.
Could this finally be Romney’s moment to find his raison d’être? The only compelling argument for nominating Romney (as far as I was concerned) was electability — the notion that only he could run a competent campaign capable of competing with Obama’s millions. Indeed, it seems Team Romney is still counting on that to be his savior. Just the other day, Romney insider Gov. John Sununu predicted Romney would win by “carpet bombing” Obama. The problem is, as Michael Gerson noted, so far, the dynamic of the race ”has not been changed through advertising.”
Electability is not the most inspiring message, but it worked.
The night Romney won Illinois, former Speaker Newt Gingrich released a statement that said this: “To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can’t nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1. Instead, we need a nominee who offers powerful solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures,” he said.
Yesterday, that seemed prescient.
Mitt Romney is now presented with an opportunity to offer Americans a clear contrast — on the economy, yes — but also on foreign policy. He should be careful, of course, in how he proceeds. But this could be one of those big moments when the public experiences a paradigm shift. The next 24-hours will be interesting to watch.