On paper, Mitt Romney’s first overseas trip as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee looked brilliantly plotted. Stop by London, rub elbows with like-minded conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, remind viewers back home that he managed to run a pretty successful Olympics in Salt Lake City. Check. Fly to Israel, hobnob with fellow conservative and personal friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remind American Jewish voters of his oft-repeated contention that President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. Check. Catch a flight to Poland, remind Polish-American voters that the Obama administration scrapped a planned missile-defense facility in Poland in order to “reset” relations with Russia, which historically has used Warsaw as a speed bump. Check.
Only apparently Romney failed to read the briefing paper on the somewhat testy mood among Londoners of late. At first glance, Romney’s comments that planned transportation strikes and a reported lack of security personnel were “disconcerting” seemed downright mild. Compare them to blaring headlines in British tabloids in recent weeks claiming that the Games were going to be an unmitigated disaster (“Security Shambles Could Cause Chaos” was a typical recent headline in The Daily Mail). As it turns out, Londoners have the same proprietary view toward the Olympic Games that many parents have about their children: We can scold them, but you had better not dare.
“The problem of the foreign trips for presidential candidates is that the upside is not all that high since you are really only trying project a presidential image, but as Romney has discovered, the potential downsides are significant because any misstatement opens you up to a lot of criticism,” said James Lindsay, a senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. The strategy behind Romney’s trip was a good one, Lindsay argues, in that the itinerary advances the narrative that Obama has deserted venerable allies to curry favor with adversaries -- a narrative appealing to Jewish and Polish-American voters who make up critical blocs in swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “But Romney has discovered that even the ‘special relationship’ with Britain doesn’t make up for British resentment of a Yankee coming over and raining on their great national project.”
By attending a fundraising dinner in Britain cohosted by executives at banks under investigation in London’s rate-fixing scandal, Romney also revealed once again a blind spot for perceptions that he is oblivious to the wrongdoing of Wall Street and out of touch with average voters. Likewise in Israel, Romney is reportedly planning to meet with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is a staunch supporter of Israel who has promised to spend as much as $100 million to defeat Obama, but he is also under investigation by the Justice Department.
Romney’s rhetorical hard line that Russia is the United States' “number one geopolitical foe” will likely play well in Poland, where he will almost surely receive a rousing reception. It will be viewed less enthusiastically by Western European powers, however, who objected to what they perceived as George W. Bush’s unnecessarily antagonistic approach to Moscow (which culminated with Russian troops invading Georgia in 2008). Western European allies are also sensitive to Romney’s oft-repeated argument that Europe is exactly the kind of basket case that the United States will become if he is not elected.
“If I were not to get elected, we would in my view become more like Europe,” Romney told C-SPAN recently. “With higher deficits, with a debt that could put us in a Greece- or Spain- or Italy-like circumstance, with chronic high unemployment, with low wage growth, and with a military that gets slowly but surely hollowed out so it could pay for the various programs the government would try and keep in place.”
Romney’s close affinity for Israel’s right-of-center Likud Party; his tough line on Russia and Afghanistan; and his unwillingness to propose solutions to climate change all sound familiar to many Europeans. “Notwithstanding their widespread disappointment in President Obama, Europeans are nervous about Romney precisely because his positions remind them of George W. Bush,” said Simon Serfaty, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.