Over the past few months, the Romney campaign has struggled to find the right opening to dissect Obama’s foreign policy resume.
On Afghanistan, the Republican contender was once keen to criticize the president for adopting a timeline to get out. No longer. With the public support for the war at all time lows, Romney now seems to be behind the 2014 withdrawal date.
Syria? No real policy difference to be found there. Send cash, guns, and spooks, and watch the nasty civil war unfold from our drones hovering in Iraq.
To out-hawk Obama on Iran, Romney would almost be forced to call for the bombs to start dropping tomorrow. (Which he hasn't done yet, though he's got advisors on his team who might.)
Israel: Obama and Romney are both big supporters. And while it's certainly easy to talk tough on China, the campaign's attempt to make the Chinese and the "Soviets" (as an advisor accidentally called the Russians) enemies number one and two haven't really stuck.
Which left Romney’s team with broader, less specific, more emotional criticisms. Obama apologizes to foreigners too much. Obama isn’t tough enough. Obama leads from behind.
That changed today. Romney decided to hit the White House where it hurts: leaks.
In his speech at the VFW in Reno, Nevada, Romney spent 327 words on alleged breaches of national security stemming from the executive branch, calling them “contemptible” and suggesting they put U.S. troops in harm's way. He was referring to sensitive details about operations that appeared in the New York Times and other outlets regarding the secret cyber-war against Iran; the leaking of an identity of double agent in Yemen; and, more broadly, the leaks that poured out of the White House after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
It was a way for Romney talk about Obama’s foreign policy without actually talking about Obama’s foreign policy.
Aided by a Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who speculated that the White House might be leaking, and two ongoing FBI investigations that could easily lead to the highest levels of the administration, Romney also for the first time called for a special prosecutor to take over the investigations.
In other words, the speech was an ideal moment to use foreign policy to take shots at what operative types like to call the “core character” while avoiding those trickier foreign policy issues.
“It raises serious questions about the truthfulness of the Obama White House,” one Romney aide told BuzzFeed. “There is a senior Democrat, who is out saying that they did leak this information.”
Another Romney adviser rejected the notion that the campaign was suddenly focusing on leaks as a way to distract from the candidates' relatively similar foreign policies, saying that, for instance, President Romney wouldn't be wasting time negotiating with Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin, who has been "useless" in putting pressure on Iran and Syria.
At the same time, the advisor pointed to what the Romney campaign sees as the "secretive" culture Obama has fostered at the White House.
"He put the investigation in Eric Holder's hands, who's already indebted to the president for having helped him with the Fast and Furious coverup. That does not show a commitment to transparency," the adviser said. "That's Nixonian in its politics.”
Team Obama’s response has been no less vitriolic, with campaign officials saying that Romney’s real reason to talk about leaks is because he doesn’t want to engage in a policy discussion.
Campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said Romney's speech was full of "cheap attacks that lack credibility." Campaign officials also pointed to Romney's upcoming trip as a way for him to avoid the most pressing foreign policy concerns, noting he’s not going to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Germany to visit with wounded troops.
But in a testament to how serious the Obama camp is taking these attacks, Vice President Biden was rolled out in the early evening to defend the president’s policy record. (Tellingly, though, Biden made no mention of the leaks in his statement.)
As Romney heads overseas tomorrow, his campaign plans to press the leak case. And so far, the White House's response has been to reiterate that Obama hates leaks, and that there's an "ongoing investigation" into the issue, as Jay Carney said today. But that just might not be enough to plug this story for good.
Contact Michael Hastings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
Contact Zeke Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.