This week’s big shiny campaign hurlyburly was Mitt Romney’s decision not to abide by our traditional "politics stops at the water’s edge" politesse and instead jump right into the water and kick and splash around, declaiming that the Obama administration "sympathized" with the people who attacked our embassies in Egypt and Libya and who took the lives of our ambassador in Benghazi and three of his colleagues. Response to Romney was ... well, it ended up being kind of mixed. While anonymous foreign policy vets joined old-guard conservatives like Peggy Noonan and Tom Ridge in criticizing Romney, many supporters said that Romney had managed to make his case that his Democratic opponent was a foreign policy apology artist.
And so Romney survives the slings and arrows from the newscycle, knowing that despite the criticism, he delivered the message he intended. But he should remember that the field of failed presidential and vice-presidential bids are peppered with men and women who zigged when they should have zagged when discussing foreign policy, leaving behind the memory of a gaffe or misstep instead of presidential glory. For this week's Huff Post List, our favorite election year foreign policy flubs.
SARAH PALIN IN THE BUSHES: It was Sarah Palin’s first big step out into the media limelight, and things were going pretty okay until ABC News' Charlie Gibson asked her whether she supported the Bush Doctrine, which held that the U.S. had the right to act pre-emptively and unilaterally against terrorist threats. Palin stared blankly for a moment before turning the question back on Gibson. "In what respect?" The ABC anchor responded, "Well, what do you interpret it to be?" Palin couldn't say, offering an answer that didn't even mention preemption: "I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation."
One mitigating factor: There were probably a lot of reporters who were like, “So, what is the Bush Doctrine, again?”
CAIN BRAIN FREEZE: 2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain had pretty much set low expectations for himself on foreign policy, explaining that as a businessman-turned-upstart candidate, he couldn't be expected to have access to classified information and wise old foreign policy hands like some of the career politicians he was running against had. But he sort of needed to have an opinion on Obama's Libyan intervention when the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's editorial board asked him about it.
Instead, Cain froze up: "Okay, Libya ... President Obama supported the uprising, correct? President Obama called for the removal of Gaddafi. Just wanted to make sure we're talking about the same thing before I say, 'Yes, I agreed. No, I didn't agree.' ... I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason." Cain paused, before saying, "Nope, that's a different one ... I got all this stuff twirling around in my head."
MICHAEL DUKAKIS TANKS: Most people remember Dukakis' undoing at the hands of a famous cold-fish response to an insane debate question that required him to imagine his wife being raped, but a famous photo of Dukakis riding around in an M1 Abrams tank like a kid at a go-kart track -- a too-large helmet on his dome and a dazed look on his face -- surely didn't help.
For his part, Dukakis says that the frozen moment "didn't beat [him]" but nevertheless allows, "Now, should I have been in the tank? Probably not, in retrospect."
NOTHING BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN: It's actually quite rare for a single debate performance to do in a candidacy, but if ever one did, it was Gerald Ford's appearance at the 1976 debate in San Francisco. There, in response to Max Franckel's question about the Helsinki agreement, Ford stated, "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." This was basically entirely incorrect.
Later, Ford explained that what he was trying to say is that the spirit of the people who lived in places like Poland would never be extinguished by the Soviet government. "That's what I should have said," Ford explained to Jim Lehrer in Lehrer's book, "Tension City." "I simply left out the fact that at the time ... the Russians had about ten to fifteen divisions in Poland." A minor detail.
CHARY KERRY GETS TOO CONTRARY: John Kerry's central argument against Bush's approach to foreign policy wasn't the greatest set of doctrines to consider even in the best light, seeing as it amounted to, 'I will continue this ongoing disaster in Iraq but manage it in a slightly better way, so things will probably totally work out, don't worry!' But Kerry created the Platonic ideal of a candidate flip-flop when, in an attempt to navigate his way to a sensible answer to "a question about his vote against an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," he offered up, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
The Bush campaign pounced on the statement, and they made it stick to Kerry through the rest of the campaign.
SINS OF THE FATHER: If anyone knows how a foreign policy flub can capsize the ambitions of a presidential hopeful, it's Mitt Romney, because that's precisely what happened to his father, George, during his own presidential run. In a 1967 interview, the elder Romney explained how he had come to oppose the Vietnam War thusly: "When I came back from Vietnam ... I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job."
As Alex Pareene noted in his "Rude Guide To Mitt Romney":
Romney's "brainwashing" line went on to become shorthand for a campaign-killing misstep and is an example of how the political press can sink a campaign in an instant. According to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, quoted in a 1993 New Yorker piece on Gary Hart: "The press knew that Romney was an idiot, but the question was: How do you write it? So along come his comments about being brainwashed, and -- wham! -- they take him out. He's history."
You can see why Romney is driven, then, to appear as tough as possible on foreign policy, even if it means not being fair or correct.
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