Throughout this campaign, for years actually, Mitt Romney has been telling anyone who'll listen that President Obama began his time in office with an "apology tour." In fact conservatives have been telling this tall tale as early as the spring of 2009:
On April 3, the Fox News website Fox Nation featured a front page headline reading: "Obama on Foreign Soil: 'America Has Shown Arrogance.'" However, Fox Nation, which linked to an April 3 U.K. Telegraph article about Obama's speech at a town hall that day in Strasbourg, France, ignored Obama's subsequent remarks in which he, in the words of the Telegraph article, "balanced this striking admission with a tough message to Europeans that blaming America was foolish." The Telegraph then quoted Obama saying: "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad."
Mitt Romney apparently belongs to that cadre of conservatives who believes that the United States of America is not only a great country, but that it literally is infallible, that it never does anything wrong, or at least nothing wrong enough to apologize for. This idea is so central to Romney's worldview that he titled his campaign book -- the place where he laid out his case for the presidency -- No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
And throughout much of the campaign, Romney repeated this particularly simplistic piece of red-meat rhetoric: "I will never apologize for the United States of America." I wonder how he squares that with the fact that Ronald Reagan apologized for interning our own citizens of Japanese origin during World War II, and that George W. Bush apologized directly to the Prime Minister of Iraq for the actions of a U.S. soldier. When he talks this way, Romney sounds like a five-year-old. His book could just as easily be called "No Humility."
Monday night, Governor Romney tried it again:
And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to -- to various nations in the Middle East and -- and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.
In fact, Romney mentioned the "apology tour" in passing in the second debate as well, and President Obama let it go. I remember wondering at the time whether the president was waiting for a more opportune moment, a moment when Romney would really tee up that line, before hitting back on it hard.
Last night, he did:
Bob, let me just respond. Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign, and every fact-checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.
The. Biggest. Whopper. First of all, this is perfect not only because it responds effectively to the "apology tour" line, but because it reminds the American people that this is only one of many other "whoppers" that Mitt Romney has told. Perfect. And of course, Obama is right about the fact-checkers.
Tuesday's LA Times noted:
Independent fact-checking groups, including PolitiFact and FactCheck, that have examined Obama's speeches on his visits to the region haven't found them to be especially critical of American actions, and found them generally consistent with statements of past presidents.
This was one of many powerful moments for President Obama in last night's debate, but I would argue it was one of the most important. Mitt Romney has made the "apology tour" and his broader attacks on President Obama's approach to the concept of American exceptionalism central to his cynical and divisive push to "other" Obama, to define him in some way as "foreign" or not fully American. I've addressed that issue in detail elsewhere. The prominence with with Romney has pushed this line over the past 24 months suggests that he thinks it will help him win a significant number of votes. That's why, strategically speaking, it was so important for the president to eviscerate it as he did Monday night.
The biggest difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is that only one of the candidates speaks about America's role in the world like an adult. And he's the one running for re-election.