In the heat of a presidential election, a certain amount of spin from the candidates is par for the course. The recent onslaught of negative TV ads is surprising only in the earliness of their arrival, leaving one to shudder at what September and October will bring.
But Mitt Romney went a few RPMs past mere spin this week with a rewrite of recent events that was so outrageous and so obvious (at least those who haven't been asleep for the past year) that it deserves some attention. In an appearance Tuesday before the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Reno, he blamed President Barack Obama for the large pending cuts in defense spending that could begin to take effect next year.
If Mr. Romney will pardon the expression, that's rich.
Here's the part he got right. There are large defense cuts on the horizon and, yes, they are potentially problematic for the nation's national security. But to blame President Obama for that circumstance is like blaming the victim of a mugging for loitering in the gutter afterward.
Mr. Romney was clearly alluding to the $1.2 trillion automatic budget sequestration due to go in effect in January unless Congress acts between now and then, something most everyone believes is highly unlikely until after the election. This is the so-called "fiscal cliff" that Democrats and Republicans alike fear will seriously hamper the economic recovery.
Those hundreds of billions of dollars in Pentagon reductions that Mr. Romney and others, including the Obama administration, are fretting about got there as part of the budget deal worked out in Congress. It was set up as a game of chicken — the cuts are so drastic and so ill-conceived that the authors assumed they would motivate Republicans and Democrats to work out some budget compromise.
That such a thing was even necessary was the result of House Republicans making big spending cuts a condition of raising the debt ceiling last year. Thus, it was an artificial crisis that precipitated an artificial deadline. House leadership not only instigated the process but signed off on the defense cuts that were part of the deal.
Yet somehow this strikes Mr. Romney as Mr. Obama's fault alone. "The president's policies have … exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify." The logic of this only works if one accepts the premise that Mr. Obama and the Senate should have acquiesced to House Republicans who initially wanted to slash domestic spending alone, including popular (and vital) entitlement programs.
Mr. Romney had some other whoppers to share at his VFW speech, including claims that the Obama administration has been soft on Russia or has hurt relations with Israel. That's the usual kind of foreign policy criticism that one might expect but that the public isn't buying. Polls have consistently shown that foreign policy has been a strength, not a weakness, for the incumbent.
It was also a shame that the Republican nominee-to-be didn't instead use the opportunity to explain how he intends to increase defense spending as he has promised in the past. This is one area where he clearly parts company with Mr. Obama policy-wise, yet he has never explained how he would pay for the additional Pentagon spending without worsening the debt.
Make no mistake, it's perfectly reasonable for Mr. Romney to worry about the impact of defense cuts, a concern most in his audience shared. But if he sees this circumstance as wholly Mr. Obama's fault he is only demonstrating more of the kind of unyielding partisanship that put those worrisome defense cuts on the agenda in the first place.
Congress sets the budget, not the White House, and no president or single chamber can dictate terms. The only way to avoid the fiscal cliff is through compromise. For the GOP, that would mean accepting higher taxes (or what they prefer to call tax reform) while Democrats must swallow further reductions in discretionary domestic spending, if not entitlements.
Mr. Romney knows that. Members of this party know that. The public knows that. So why can't anyone in the GOP speak openly about it? As it happens, a few, like Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, have, but it's not exactly a battle cry. In a tight race, it's just safer to heap all blame on one's opponent and worry about governance (at least one hopes) when the dust settles.