Campaigns are, by and large, subservient to the news cycle. They can plan events, themes, and messages far in advance, but then something like a series of attacks on our diplomatic posts in the Middle East can suddenly make most other topics seem momentarily irrelevant.
This morning, the Romney campaign unveiled an ad charging that Obama’s approach to China is “failing American workers,” pointing out that since Obama took office, the country has lost more than 500,000 jobs, while Chinese manufacturing is booming. The ad depicts Romney talking to a group of workers on a warehouse floor, declaring, “It’s time to stand up to the cheaters, and make sure we protect jobs for the American people.”
Does this break through the noise, or does it get lost in the noise over the Middle East? Does it mesh with the current discussion of whether Obama’s policies responding to the Arab Spring have been naïve and ineffective? Or does it reach some Rust Belt undecided voter who doesn’t care about the Middle East, but who is worried about how few U.S. companies are hiring?
This is one more reason why the media’s “Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama came too soon!” charge is so inane. Had Romney and his campaign not responded for 24 hours, we would be hearing the opposite critique: He’s caught flatfooted, he and his campaign move too slowly, they’re always playing catch-up, and so on. The attacks on our embassy personnel are the story of the day, and may be until the attacks die down. (Expect to hear more false alarm stories like the one in Berlin this morning.) Romney has to talk about it — both to get his campaign’s message of the day onto the front pages (both literal and metaphorical) and to demonstrate that he is ready, already up to speed on the most pressing crises facing the country.
But Romney faces a risk if the campaign becomes focused on foreign policy in its final weeks, former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, now head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, told me this morning. An incumbent president normally has advantages during a foreign-policy crisis, the “rally around the flag” effect, he said. If the U.S. and Libyan governments manage to kill or capture the perpetrators of the deadly attack on our personnel, the administration’s initial dithering response will be largely forgotten.
At the moment, there are quite a few ripe areas for criticism in the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But considering how the country’s economic anxieties aren’t dissipating, and the GOP message advantage on other issues — job creation, the debt, wasteful spending, gas prices — Republicans may want to see the campaign’s focus return to the economy as quickly as possible.