Well, that foreign trip hasn’t started so well for Mitt Romney. With even Britain’s conservative newspapers mocking him, Romney must wonder whether he would have been better off staying home — or skipping the Olympics.
But there’s a larger question here: Does this trip make any sense at all for Romney? It is very hard to see how Romney will ever win the debate over foreign policy. Polls so far have given Obama a significant advantage over Romney on the handling of foreign affairs, and it would take Obama’s mishandling of a serious foreign policy crisis to change this. A majority of Americans are closer to Obama’s approach to foreign policy than to Romney’s, with its many echoes of former President George W. Bush’s view. In particular, a large majority of Americans are happy that our troops are out of Iraq, and the surveys suggest that they would like to be out of Afghanistan on an even quicker timetable than the one Obama has set out. At the moment, Obama seems to provide a safer, more prudent set of hands. After a decade of war, prudence is a virtue Americans seem to prize.
There is something else as well, captured by a very good piece by Jonathan Rauch in The New Republic. Obama, Rauch argues, “has planted himself and the Democrats exactly where Romney, by rights, ought to be: on the kind of pragmatic realism that Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush used to own.” Rauch goes on to say this: “To realists, power may not be admirable, but it must always be dealt with; and, in dealing with it, conserving and effectively deploying America’s power, a scarce and precious commodity, is Priority One, for it is the commodity upon which human rights and U.S. hegemony alike ultimately depend.”
Having argued since 2008 that Obama wanted to replace the foreign policy of George W. Bush with the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush, I broadly identify with Rauch’s argument. But more important is the fact that the American public was always closer to the Bush I foreign policy than the Bush II foreign policy; at a minimum, that’s certainly where the public is now.
This leaves very little room for Romney. Sure, he may get better press on later parts of his trip. Perhaps he’ll score some political points in Poland and Israel. But on the whole, I think Romney will want to stay away from foreign policy. The more we talk about it, the better Obama will do.