We live in a perilous world where it has become acceptable, even admirable, for leaders to talk openly of drawing "red lines" that adversaries cannot cross without triggering an overwhelming military response.
But we also live in a political world where voters must now draw their own "red lines" -- with clarity even vote-hungry politicians can comprehend. We must mark the limits of pandering, dishonesty and distortion that candidates can no longer cross without triggering overwhelming electoral rejection.
Mitt Romney deliberately drove his blunderbuss of a bandwagon up to that red line recently and then crossed it -- an act more irresponsible than anything I've seen in decades of observing presidential nominees. Romney and his advisers deliberately distorted times and truths during a dangerous American crisis in the Middle East, in a calculated effort to confuse you and maybe capture your vote.
The good news is you probably didn't fall for it, as many respected Republican foreign policy experts and party elders took the rare step of publicly repudiating Romney's incendiary attempt to play politics with patriotism.
(Time out: We aren't talking today about Romney's just-revealed videotaped fundraiser remarks disparaging what he said were 47 percent of Americans who paid no income tax, who are "dependent upon government," who see themselves as "victims ... entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it" -- and who are all voting for Barack Obama. Romney, of course, was merely speaking unguardedly to kindred billionaire/multimillionaire souls who, like Romney, feel "entitled" to shelter their millions on offshore islands to avoid paying income taxes. Never mind that most of those in the room probably pay a lower tax rate than you do. At least they are not like the group Romney called "those people," the "government dependents" who pay no taxes at all, a group that includes the homeless, the hungry and General Electric. That's who we are not talking about today.)
Today, we are focusing on reckless distortions on matters of global politics. Here's what happened:
1. Early this summer, an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in the United States made and aired online a despicable short film that insulted Muslims by grotesquely depicting Mohammad. Ultra-conservative Muslim activists in Egypt waited until the eve of Sept. 11 to publicize the film and summoned outraged Muslims to protest at the American embassy in Cairo.
2. Worried U.S. embassy officials tried to dissuade Egyptians from protesting by sending a tweet (reportedly never approved in Washington) condemning "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
3. Six hours later, protesters gathered; some scaled the embassy wall, captured, shredded and burned the U.S. flag.
4. In Benghazi, Libya, another protest began at the U.S. consulate. News reports said one consulate employee was killed. (U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in a rocket attack by a terrorist group.)
5. Romney and his team rushed to use this unrest to attack President Barack Obama, distorting time elements so the embassy's tweet seemed to be a response to violence that hadn't happened when it was sent. "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," said Romney. "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." Romney adviser Richard Williamson went on TV and blamed the violence on Obama's "failure to be an effective leader for U.S. interests in the Middle East."
Romney's ill-considered attack was unlike decades of restrained, patriotic responses by presidential nominees, including Romney's favorite Republican icon, Ronald Reagan.
In the 1980 campaign, after the failure of President Jimmy Carter's April military mission to rescue U.S. embassy hostages in Iran, Reagan admirably said: "This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united" and to pray. And fellow candidate George H. W. Bush said: "I unequivocally support the president of the United States -- no ifs, ands or buts -- and it certainly is not a time to try to go one-up politically. He made a difficult, courageous decision."
Even in his October debate with Carter, Reagan wisely declined to inject politics into the crisis when asked what could have been done differently. "Your question is difficult to answer," Reagan said, "because, in the situation right now, no one wants to say anything that would inadvertently delay, in any way, the return of those hostages ... or that might cause them harm."
Only by drawing a red line -- and enforcing it on Election Day -- can voters save our democracy from some desperate future presidential wannabe who is recklessly willing to bend it until in breaks.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)