A month ago, I was sure that foreign policy wouldn’t matter in this presidential campaign. Turns out I was wrong. Mitt Romney’s disastrous overseas jaunt has changed the presidential race. It’s not because Americans care so much about the issues Romney discussed. It’s because the way Romney discussed them may change the way Americans see him.
What Romney’s selling this campaign, basically, is competence. Americans don’t consider him as likeable as Barack Obama. Given Romney’s wealth, they don’t think he can identify as easily with their problems. Given his high-profile flip-flops, they don’t consider him particularly honest or trustworthy. But Americans do give Romney an edge on the question of which candidate “can get things done.” After all, they figure, the economy is lousy. Obama has failed to make Washington any more functional than it was before he arrived. And Romney has succeeded in virtually everything he’s done. So maybe he can do a better job of making America prosperous again.
Romney’s image as competent is particularly important given the last two Republicans who ran for president. It was George W. Bush’s administration’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina that effectively destroyed his presidency. And it was John McCain’s uninformed, unhinged response to the financial crisis that helped seal his fate in the 2008 campaign. Given the Republican Party’s declining reputation for economic management, Romney’s personal reputation for competence has been all the more precious this election year.
And that’s what makes his overseas trip so damaging. No one will remember the details: Romney’s dissing of the London Olympics; his failure to remember the name of the leader of the Labour Party; his indiscreet reference to meeting the head of Britain’s secret spy agency; his implication that Palestinians are culturally inferior to Jews. But they may remember that almost everywhere he went, things went wrong. Britain’s prime minister rebuked him. London’s mayor mocked him. Palestinian leaders called him a racist. Again and again, Romney came off as not merely insensitive, but clueless. By the end of the tour, his handlers were frantically trying to keep the traveling press corps at bay.
Romney’s foreign trip vaguely echoed the travails of another charm-challenged candidate who built his campaign around competence: Michael Dukakis. Like the Democrats’ 1988 nominee so famously pictured in that tank, Romney tried to find a backdrop that would make him look more presidential, and ended up making himself look less so.
The other impression that may linger from Romney’s trip is of a candidate whose pandering has gotten out of hand. It’s one thing to fly to Israel and say nice things about Jews. That’s par for the course. It’s another to fly to Israel, be followed there by a man who has pledged $100 million to help elect you, seat him in the front row, and then give a speech parroting his extremist, vaguely racist views. Mitt Romney has said he supports a Palestinian state. But Sheldon Adelson thinks it’s “a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.” And Adelson has said the Palestinian people don’t really exist. So with his sugar daddy looking on, Romney gave a speech in Jerusalem that neither endorsed a Palestinian state, nor even mentioned the word “Palestinian” at all. Given that the entire Israel trip was designed to showcase “how much Romney would abase himself by saying whatever the Israeli right wanted to hear and how big a jackpot of donations Adelson would shower on the Romney campaign in return,” Thomas Friedman wrote in disgust, “Vegas would have been so much more appropriate than Jerusalem.”
The 2012 election is not fundamentally about Barack Obama. Most Americans don’t hate him, but a majority would send him packing given the state of the economy. The election is fundamentally about Mitt Romney—about whether enough Americans think he’s a plausible alternative. Up until now, Romney’s biggest challenge in that regard was convincing Americans that once elected, he’d put the interests of ordinary Americans first. But in the aftermath of his trip, he has another challenge: proving that he’s up to the job in the first place. Turns out that sometimes foreign travel really isn’t broadening after all.
Editor’s Note: Paul Begala will resume his column after the election.