Mitt Romney’s Olympic stumbles in London

July 27, 2012

On a trip that was supposed to introduce the presumptive Republican presidential candidate on the world stage, Mitt Romney arrived Wednesday in London for a series of meetings with British leaders. As Philip Rucker reported from London, the day didn’t go as smoothly as planned:

Thursday was supposed to be the easy day, when Mitt Romney would audition as a world leader here by talking about his shared values with the heads of the United States’ friendliest ally.

Instead, the Republican presidential candidate insulted Britain as it welcomed the world for the Olympics by casting doubt on London’s readiness for the Games, which open Friday, saying that the preparations he had seen were “disconcerting” and that it is “hard to know just how well it will turn out.”

The comments drew a swift rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron and, by day’s end, a public tongue-lashing by the city’s mayor as the Olympic torch arrived in Hyde Park.

“I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Mayor Boris Johnson cried out to a crowd of at least 60,000. “He wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are.”

Cameron, responding to the candidate with a note of irritation, said that “of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” an apparent reference to Salt Lake City. That city held the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, which Romney organized. The prime minister and the mayor are conservatives, making their scolding all the more embarrassing for the candidate, an otherwise sympathetic ideological ally.

Romney later tried to end the controversy, stating in interviews that he was “very delighted with the prospect of a highly successful Olympic games.” That night, he was interviewed by CNN’s Piers Morgan, as Felicia Sonmez reported:

In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan on the eve of the London Olympics, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney on Thursday was careful not to repeat his earlier misstep of suggesting that the city is ill-prepared to host the Games.

“It’s great; it’s absolutely fabulous,” Romney told Morgan at the Royal Naval College when asked how it felt to be in London for the Olympics.

“You know, I’d never been to an Olympics before I was given the Olympic job,” said Romney, who is widely credited with rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. “I mean, I’d done the same thing everybody else did -- I watched the games on TV. But to actually be here and to experience not just the athletes but also the volunteers who are working hard and excited, and then the whole community comes together, it’s fabulous.”

In Thursday night’s CNN interview, Romney – who was joined by his wife, Ann – sought to strike a most positive tone, praising London’s “great weather” and the enthusiasm surrounding this year’s Olympics.

“These games -- great weather, enthusiasm on the part of the people here in London,” he said. “I think you’re going to see terrific games that’ll be a long time in our memories.”

The damage control effort did not impress She the People’s Suzi Parker, who noted that a number of other mini-gaffes contributed to Romney’s overall negative reception in London:

The British media was having none of Romney’s two-faced rhetoric. Guardian reporter Nicholas Watt tweeted, “Mitt Romney rowing back like mad on Oympics (sic): now says outside No. 10 games to be a great success.”

The Guardian posted several stories about the Romney incident on its site including one with the headline, “Romney’s Olympics blunder stuns No. 10 and hands gift to Obama.” As the paper reported: “One senior Whitehall source said: “What a total shocker. We are speechless.”

A commentary entitled “If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care” in “The Telegraph,” stated, “Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive.” This is such a stark contrast from when Obama visited London in July 2008. He was cheered in the streets with “Yes We Can.” (So far, no reports of massive cheering for Romney can be found.) Reporters were also quick to point out other Romney blunders.

The GOP candidate seemed to forget Labour Leader Ed Miliband's first name, simply calling him “Mr. Leader.” And in a big British no-no, Romney announced at 10 Downing Street that he had met the chief of MI-6. It's custom for visiting dignitaries not to announce such things, as MI-6 is highly clandestine. (Any James Bond fan knows this.) Romney's next foreign stops include Israel and Poland. Hopefully, he brushes up on his etiquette — and restrains the tone deafness — before the plane lands. There's a vast difference between diplomatic toughness and plain rudeness. Romney showed the latter in London.

The Fix’s Rachel Weiner reports that how much a foreign press likes Mitt Romney might  not matter much for voters back home, but he may have squandered an opportunity to bolster his image:

The British press is notoriously nasty, and for years Obama has been its target. Yet in the latest WSJ-NBC poll, voters think the president handles foreign policy better than Romney would by 15 points. Few likely know or care that Obama moved a bust of Winston Churchill or chose “appalling” gifts for Brown’s sons.

Moreover, foreign policy is a very low priority for voters; about one percent of Americans consider it the most important issue right now. Despite Obama’s advantage in international affairs, most polls show a deadlocked tight race.

It’s also not clear that any trip abroad, good or bad, will move numbers. Obama got a modest bump over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in polls in the days after his July 2008 trip abroad, but the race quickly narrowed again.

“I don’t think that we’ll see a bump in the polls. I think we might even lose some points,” he told the Post at the time. But, he added, there could be a more subtle, long-term advantage: “It gives voters a sense that I can in fact — and do — operate effectively on the international stage.”

Romney could be similarly polishing his image as not just a businessman but a statesman. Instead, he’s raising questions about his readiness.

“I think it shows a certain inexperience in international affairs,” said Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Certainly it makes him quite unpopular with the British and I think to no constructive end.”

Romney has attacked Obama as a bumbling leader who “has diminished American leadership” and let important relationships whither. Now, whenever he tries to raise that attack, Obama and his allies can respond: Remember London?

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