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Gwen’s Take: Teetering at the Water’s Edge

It is always perilous for anyone running for commander in chief to get out in front of the man who already has the job. For Mitt Romney, this week has been a special test.

Fresh off a pair of political conventions that were designed to blast the candidates into the fall campaign with a burst of enthusiasm, the nominees were reminded that the best-laid plans often fall victim to world events.

As the consulate in Benghazi burned, and angry Muslims took to the streets in Cairo and Sanaa, it was unlikely that even the tragic death of an ambassador and three other Americans would ever remain fully insulated from the presidential campaign.

Traditionally, politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. No more. There have been many recollections this week about how Ronald Reagan shied away from criticizing Jimmy Carter during his worst foreign policy moment, a failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.

But that was in April of 1980, well before cable and Twitter. Well before the Internet. And Reagan’s demurral certainly didn’t come in the heat of a post-convention run for the roses. Still, Reagan was saying much the same thing later that year during a general election debate.

Romney took another path, declaring that the President was “at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events.” Republicans from Donald Rumsfeld to John McCain to Bobby Jindal weighed in with terms like “weakness,” “feckless” and “lack of judgment.”

The White House said it was shocked at Romney’s reaction, and even some Republicans squirmed a bit at the timing, which came as the nation was absorbing the news of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death.

But the protests in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, coupled with Romney’s criticism, did serve a singular purpose. It brought the foreign policy debate back to the political stage.

It’s kind of amazing that the topic was ever on the fringe of the debate. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan, and there are American boots on the ground all over the world. But the thorny difficulty of managing relationships with everyone from Israel and Great Britain to Pakistan and Russia makes foreign policy a topic candidates are happy to avoid.

Add to that an election year where neither of the two nominees has served in the military, and we have watched a campaign unfold that is particularly vulnerable to the distraction of bright, shiny objects. As Slate’s John Dickerson pointed out this week, “So far, the campaign has been almost totally devoid of a discussion of foreign policy, an issue area where a president has arguably more power than the economy.”

Romney’s critique came at a pivotal moment in what has turned out to be a tense and close campaign. Each side had something to prove when they left Tampa and Charlotte.

For Romney, the task for the remaining two months – as it has been for the entire campaign – is to persuade a nation why it should oust a sitting president. This usually boils down to two arguments: The president is hurting you, or the president is incompetent.

The first argument is mostly an economic one. Are you better off than you were four years ago? Have the president’s actions made your life worse? Does he deserve another term or will that just be doubling down on a bad idea?

The second argument dovetails perfectly with the foreign policy censure that Romney offered this week. Romney, his running mate and their surrogates spoke in unison. The president, they said, is an inadequate leader, and the violence in North Africa and the Middle East proves it.

Timing aside, it was a hard argument to resist, especially when it fit so perfectly into the narrative any challenger needs. The water’s edge be damned.

The Obama campaign has almost exactly the opposite case to make. The health care law, the president argues, has made lives better. And when the Federal Reserve gave the sluggish economy a long-awaited jump start Thursday by keeping interest rates low, the stock market leapt to life, closing at a five year high.

The same day, a new CNN poll showed that, even though 42 percent of likely voters say they are worse off than they were four years ago, they remain optimistic. Sixty-eight percent expect the nation’s economy will be good or very good one year from now.

When it comes to Romney’s second main argument – lack of leadership — the president and his surrogates also return to foreign policy. They tirelessly cite the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, praising the president’s tough mindedness at every turn. And although the administration expressed dismay that one of the Navy SEALs involved in the mission published a book about it, the Chicago campaign can’t be unhappy whenever the story is repeated.

Whatever happens between now and November, these will be the two basic arguments. We’ll see if there are any minds left to be changed.

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