I spoke to Mitt Romney just a little while ago, following his foreign policy speech at the Citadel. He talked expansively about some foreign policy views, but also why he thinks (unlike Gov. Chris Christie) this is his moment and how he, admittedly, comes across as “less uptight” in this presidential campaign than in 2008. He also made some news on Russia, which has been publicly hectoring the U.S. to be let into the WTO.
I began by asking him about Russian “reset.” He is, as on most topics, highly critical of President Obama. “You have to go back, “ he begins, “to when we pulled our missile defense sites out of eastern Europe. I wouldn’t have done it. But if we were going to do it, he should have gotten something of huge foreign policy significance. He didn’t.”
He’s under no illusions about Vladimir Putin. He is convinced that Putin dreams of “rebuilding the Russian empire.” He says, “That includes annexing populations as they did in Georgia and using gas and oil resources” to throw their weight around in Europe. He maintains that the START treaty was tilted toward Russia. “It has to end,” he says emphatically about “reset.” “We have to show strength.” I ask him about WTO, which has been much in the news as Putin blusters and demands entry into the trade organization. Romney is again definitive. “Letting people into WTO who intend to cheat is obviously a mistake.”
As for Iran, his speech at the Citadel stressed the need to reinvigorate the military option. Most military experts believe the U.S. capabilities are far more extensive and effective than those of our democratic ally Israel. Romney tells me that a military option would only happen after close consultation with the Israelis. He observes: “Diplomatically, world opinion would recognize both [would be involved].” In other words, what enemy of the U.S. and Israel would believe we did not have a role to play in a possible military strike?
Obama’s critics have lambasted his inattention to human rights. Romney doesn’t intended to follow that route. “Human rights in and of themselves” are important, he says. But, citing Dean Acheson and Harry Truman, Romney argues that as a practical matter nations that respect freedom and human rights also “are more peaceful than those that don’t.”
Christie recently told the country now is “not [his] time.” I ask Romney why he thinks it is his time. He goes back to his experience in the private sector in figuring out what makes companies tick and how to create successful businesses. “These qualities an capabilities are very much at the center of what we need. The economy is my wheel house.” His picture of America is somewhat dire: “What the world and America is going through is an upheaval like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetime.,” he explains. In his view, “Obama has so mismanaged the economy” that the fate of America’s economy is now “in the balance.” As for his competitors, “other people have other skills,” but only he has the combination, he argues, of knowledge of the private sector and time in government.
He also makes a case that his style of problem-solving is uniquely suited to addressing big, complex problems. He recalls his own father: “Dad was an outstanding leader. He’d bring in top thinkers from a wide array of fields — how to fix the Detroit schools, for example. I watched him in these meetings. He listened and probed.” That analytical perspective, he says, continued in law and business school and then as a management consultant. In that latter field, he explains, you have to “give advice to people who have been doing something their whole lives. I have to find what they haven’t seen.” He continues, “Some issues are straightforward, other issues are exceedingly complex, like defeating radical jihadism.” What he is offering, in other words, is the executive expertise that Obama never mastered.
He also argues that the discipline of, and experience in the private sector makes him especially attuned to the consequences of decisions. “In the private sector, you make mistakes and you lose your job, others lose their investments, others lose their jobs.” However, in government, he says, the fixation is to “blame other people.” He cites Obama as a prime offender. “Even he admits the economy is in worse shape. He tries to blame the Republicans in Congress,” even though the Democrats held the majority for two years.
Romney may be the most well-traveled candidate who has never served in the military or Congress. At my request his staff sent a list of foreign travels in recent years. It is voluminous. A sample: “Brazil, Australia, South Korea, Hungary, Switzerland, Russia, Greece, Italy, Senegal—for Olympic meetings and site visits during his employment with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee from 1999-2002. . . . [In the last eight year]: Guantanamo Bay (2006); China, Japan, and South Korea (including the de-militarized zone, DMZ) (2006); Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait (2006); Israel (2007); Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates (2011).” And then there is 25 years of foreign travel while at Bain.
He doesn’t not lack for exposure, then, but what did he learn? Aside from his business fact-finding missions he cites his first trip to Israel in May 1998. A“nun convinced me to go,” he laughs. “I wanted to go to the beach.” He says of his foreign trips, “The most emotional has to be Israel. Not only because it is the birthplace of my faith, but because of the extraordinary commitment of the people of Israel to values that we share — freedom, tolerance of others.”
Having covered Romney in 2008, I have observed that he seems to be much more at ease, less “robotic,” as his critics called him four years ago. He says, “I don’t notice any difference. I’m still the same person. But Ann tells me. Others tell me the same thing. I only imagine it is recognition that my job is to explain as clearly as I can [who I am] and let Americans select me or someone else.” He concedes some of the ease may stem from “confidence that much of it is out of my hands.” He laughs that maybe that is why people see him “as less uptight.”
Romney in 2008 had an authenticity problem. In 2012 he’s straining less, it seems, to convince skeptics of who he is. At bottom, he is a super-competent executive, who understands the private sector much better than most politicians. If he’s more problem-solver than ideologue, he’s hoping Americans would be relieved to have that, at the very least, after years of Obamaism.
The pleasant surprise for hawks may be that in his view the only reasoned and acceptable position he thinks possible is one that emphasizes a strong America, an ample defense budget and a refusal to be intimidated by enemies. His opponents should, if not already, be forewarned: This is a man who works exceptionally hard, is not going to be caught off guard, prizes preparation and excellent staffing and can speak fluently on a range of topics. He’s not going to thrill a lot of conservatives, but those qualities are going to make it awfully hard for his GOP rivals to beat him.