When a horse shies or spooks in Olympic dressage, a judge will penalize the rider for displaying a lack of harmony. Mitt Romney must hope that Rafalca, his family’s equine entry in the 2012 Summer Games, gets off to a more harmonious start than the candidate has in his overseas trip.
As Romney arrived in London, the first stop in a three-nation voyage – Great Britain, Israel, and Poland - to polish his foreign-policy credentials, his campaign was losing points from the judges for inharmonious stumbles.
Romney took flak for scheduling posh London fundraisers with international financiers, some of whom are under investigation for interest-rate fixing in the 2008 financial crisis. Then came the news that an unnamed Romney campaign adviser had infelicitously boasted, to an English newspaper, how Romney shared more of an “Anglo-Saxon heritage” with Great Britain than President Obama.
Then Romney had to revise his observation, made in an American television interview, that there are "disconcerting" signs that his British hosts were not fully prepared to host a great Olympics. He also appeared to forget the name of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, referring to him at a news conference as "Mr. Leader."
The Romney campaign renounced the race-themed remark, and denied that it came from one of the candidate’s advisers. “If anyone said that, they weren’t reflecting the views of Governor Romney or anyone inside the campaign,” campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg told National Journal.
But that didn’t stop Obama’s campaign from retaliating. “Mitt’s off to a flying start, even before he lands, with stunningly offensive quotes from his team in British press,” tweeted David Axelrod, the president’s senior campaign adviser.
The Romney campaign deplored that kind of commentary as frivolous. "The United States and the liberal world order it upholds face some serious challenges.... Today, for instance, Syria is turning into an even bigger catastrophe," said Romney adviser Robert Kagan. "The American people need and deserve from both campaigns a serious discussion of the big issues of foreign and defense policy, not petty point-scoring for the daily news cycle."
Candidates can survive foreign-policy gaffes. The Obama campaign withstood a damaging flap in 2008, when an adviser was caught in duplicitous “political positioning” on trade with Canada. Obama is still living down his own open-mike promise to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to show “more flexibility” to Russian concerns after the 2012 election.
But Romney’s trip is a special test, for he has no significant foreign-policy experience on his resume. The risks are real, as his father George learned when, while a promising candidate for the presidency in 1968, he allowed how he had been “brainwashed” about the Vietnam War by U.S. military and diplomatic officials there. It damaged, perhaps fatally, George Romney’s campaign.
“In this cycle, I would rather have Romney’s advantage on the economy than Obama’s advantage on foreign policy,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. Still, the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which McInturff conducts with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, shows Obama with a 15-point lead over Romney when respondents were asked which candidate would be better at handling foreign policy.
And the fundraising flap was more than a foreign affair. It reinforced the imagery, which Democrats have been drumming into the electorate in thousands of television ads, of Romney as an elitist from the predatory world of outsourcing, shut-down factories, Swiss banks, and Cayman Island accounts.
Democratic operatives were downright gleeful when The Boston Globe and The Washington Post reported that Romney would be attending two fundraisers at undisclosed locations — a $2,500-per-person reception and a dinner costing from $25,000 to $75,000 per person — in “the heart of London’s scandal-ridden banking industry” where “the hosts … overwhelmingly represent banks, hedge funds, and other financial institutions, some of which are embroiled in the Libor rate-fixing scandal,” as the Post reported.
The Globe revealed that Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond had withdrawn as a cohost of the Romney fundraiser after the bank agreed to pay $450 million to settle allegations that it manipulated Libor — the London interbank offered rate before and after the 2008 financial crisis.
The Obama administration has its own Libor issues — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is answering questions on Capitol Hill this week about how much he knew about the scandal — and its own ties to Barclays. Mark Gilbert, a top Barclays executive, has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama.
But left-leaning members of Parliament kept the story going, introducing a motion noting “the destructive role Barclays has played in the international Libor-setting scandal” and calling on the bank’s executives to stop fundraising for political candidates.
U.S. and British labor unions, meanwhile, offered a reward (dinner for two in London at “an American-style" restaurant) to a snitch that supplies them with the location of Romney’s “secretive but lavish fundraising event” so that they can present the candidate with a “gold medal” for secrecy.
“I’m sure Mitt feels more comfortable with his fellow international bankers than with middle-class Americans,” joked Democratic operative Paul Begala. “He can gain valuable tips on the latest offshore tax havens.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron didn't take kindly to the Olympic affront, and said so with comments which suggest that Romney's stewardship of the Salt Lake City Olympics had been no great deal.
"We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world," Cameron told the British press. "Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere."
Romney tried to make amends. “My experience with regards to the Olympics is it is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur," he told the press. "Of course there will be errors from time to time, but those are all overshadowed by the extraordinary demonstrations of courage, character and determination by the athletes."
Romney’s awkward start is not the end of the world, particularly in a campaign season when the economy is so dominant an issue. “Both President Carter and President George H. W. Bush’s campaigns are potent reminders of the significant limits of trying to leverage foreign-policy success in a bad economy,” said McInturff.
But “starting with events like this is not the right optics,” said Mark Jacobson, a former NATO official and American military officer who serves as senior adviser to the Truman Project, a progressive national-security institute. “There is a delicate balancing in diplomacy, even more so when you are aspiring to become commander-in-chief. This is a bad way for his trip to start.”