SALT LAKE CITY — GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney went too far by politicizing the deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, according to a pair of political scholars in Utah to promote their new book about what's wrong with Washington.
"When you decide to step into a crisis abroad, where Americans are endangered or dead, you are playing with fire," Norm Ornstein, co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism," said Wednesday.
Four diplomats were killed in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, during rioting in Libya and Egypt that was apparently sparked Tuesday by a little-seen anti-Muslim film made by an American.
Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Romney's criticism of President Barack Obama for statements from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt condemning the firm for having "hurt the religious feelings" of others, may backfire with voters.
"When it looks like you're exploiting a disaster for political gain and you do it right away instead of waiting at least until the dust clears … at a minimum, what it says it's there's a tone deafness about politics," Ornstein said. Undecided voters "may look at this and say, 'C'mon, don't we have any limits here?'"
His co-author, Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called Romney's criticism — first leveled late Tuesday before it was clear who was killed and again Wednesday after the news of Stevens' death — "exceedingly aggressive. It's neo-conservative. It's accusing the Obama administration of apologizing … and not holding the big stick."
Mann said Romney used "bad judgment" by taking on the president as the situation was still unfolding.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman Jr., who served as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama before his unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination, said in a statement that the deaths are "above all a reminder that politics should end at the waters edge."
Huntsman, who had also been U.S. ambassador to Singapore, expressed his "deep condolences to one of America's finest officers, representing the highest ideals of American diplomacy. This is a time when we all should reflect on those who continue to give, even the last measure, of service and sacrifice, to promoting and defending America's interests abroad."
Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright agreed with Huntsman that presidential politics should steer clear of situations where American lives are in danger. However, he also said Romney did nothing wrong in speaking out.
"He's right. We have to stand together. But I think they're two separate things to me. I don't think (Romney) is politicizing the deaths or the tragic situation," Wright said. "I thought he was pretty heartfelt."
Ornstein and Mann spoke Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics about their book, which blames Republicans for the current dysfunction in Washington, D.C.
Both said they strive to be nonpartisan and stopped short of saying Romney's election would add to a situation where the GOP has all but "declared war on the government," becoming more loyal to their party than to the country.
Ornstein called for return to a Republican Party willing to engage with Democrats in solving the nation's problems, telling a standing-room only audience, "We don't want the Republican Party blown off the face of the earth."
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