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Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech: A leadership moment?

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Any foreign policy speech delivered by a presidential candidate with less than 30 days to go before the election has one simple goal: To make him or her look like the commander-in-chief.

There is the military setting—in this case, the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. There are the flags behind the nominee at the podium. And there is the repeated use of “leadership” or the act of “leading,” as if simply by invoking it the speaker appears more presidential.

Romney did all those things in his foreign policy speech Monday, speaking with an aggressive delivery and a stern expression that were clear attempts to fulfill (as he titled the speech) “the mantle of leadership.” Including the title, Romney used the word “lead”—whether speaking about leadership, the leader of the free world, or the act of leading—17 times in the half-hour speech: 

“There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East,” he said. “It is the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history,” Romney said, “not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.” And Romney said he is “running for president because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America’s great influence—wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively.”

What the speech didn’t include were many new specifics about his overall views on foreign policy, though that’s hardly surprising. Weeks before the election, it’s the context of the remarks rather than their content that candidates prioritize. We did not get major revelations of how, exactly, Romney plans to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state” and succeed with Middle East negotiations when he was filmed earlier this year telling donors he planned to “kick the ball down the field” when it comes to significant action in the region. We did not get more detail on how Romney intends to pay for an expansion of the military without significantly adding to the national debt.

What we did get was more ridicule of the infamous “lead from behind” philosophy that Republicans love to associate with Obama. We got the nominee standing in front of a room full of uniformed soldiers speaking with confidence on foreign policy issues. And as for new details, we got a little bit of news that he would name one U.S. official to get control of “all assistance efforts in the greater Middle East” and a vow to build “15 ships per year, including three submarines.”

Romney’s speech may have gone over better than his trip to Europe during the summer or his remarks following the attacks in Libya did. But speeches like this are so strictly orchestrated that it’s hard to see how it couldn’t have. The real test will be whether it affects the number of undecided voters who view Romney as a capable and confident commander-in-chief.

My guess is the Oct. 22 foreign-policy debate, not a carefully crafted speech that frequently mentions leadership, will be the only thing that can really move the needle on that.

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