The Post reported on the foreign policy decisionmaking apparatus in the Romney campaign. As that story documented, foreign policy is not at the core of the Romney message or campaign:
“The [Romney senior political advisers] have this theory of the campaign and have been on autopilot with it and haven’t adjusted,” said one exasperated Republican foreign policy expert with strong conservative credentials. “It’s all about attacking Obama, when the bigger job is to introduce himself.”
It is not surprising in a story of this type that one or more “advisers” (with varying levels of influence and proximity to the candidate) take the opportunity to swipe at competitors for the candidate’s ear. So you get this sort of slap: “Some in the more moderate GOP foreign policy establishment have shuddered over Romney’s statements saying Russia is America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ and his suggestions of postponing the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Others have expressed private alarm over some of his more outspoken surrogates on the right, in particular John R. Bolton, the neoconservative former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.”
In fact, Romney himself has not given “moderates” (if that’s what they call themselves) much attention. His white paper, the most authoritative expression of his foreign policy issued last fall, was penned by foreign policy hawks and drew sharp contrasts with President Obama on everything from defense spending to Israel to Russia. Likewise, Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and his comments in Poland and Israel were aggressive indictments of the president and plainly put Romney in the camp of forward-leaning conservatives who want to combine hard and soft power to project American strength.
The problem I have observed in the campaign and learned in conversations going back more than a year with many staffers (both those officially on the campaign and others in advisory capacities) is not ideological but organizational.
Most of the difficulties foreign policy gurus experience in getting a quick response from Romney to world events or keeping the Romney foreign trip on track stem from the absence of a very senior adviser who is close to the candidate. He is lacking a steady hand who can raise issues to his attention, manage the media, frame the national security issues and figure out how to weave foreign policy into the candidates speeches and interviews. There are many sous chefs, but no executive chef who has both the confidence of the candidate and a sophisticated take on foreign policy.
This was the difficulty months ago when foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell came and went before he could assume his post. Foreign policy remains one of the campaign’s ragged edges, a nuisance that often ensnares the candidate in needless distractions.
Republican pollsters and operatives will swear foreign policy doesn’t “matter” at all in the race. They are right that it ranks low in the priorities voters express. But as voters tune into the race this fall (some for the first time) they are going to want reassurance that Romney will be a resolute, sturdy commander in chief. He will have to project that authority in the debates. In short, Romney should get his foreign policy shop in order before it does more harm than good. Three adjustments would help improve his foreign policy operation.
First, select a single foreign policy guru who has both campaign and government experience, who is with the candidate along with senior political advisers for critical decisions and who helps craft his message in big speeches as well as press avails. That person needs to be more than a paper shuffler and conference-call moderator. He should share Romney’s tough-minded views and curtail the grumblers who like to run to the press when things don’t go their way.
Second, Romney would do well to find a handful of foreign policy issues (e.g. defense sequestration, Iran, and China) and a few big-picture ideas (e.g. stop deferring to multilateral bodies, no more soft-peddling human rights). These should become a regular part of his stump speech and his interviews.
Third, Romney needs to hire a foreign policy spokesman with enough experience to deal with the media, especially junior political reporters who don’t generally cover foreign policy. It is a waste if that person doesn’t have the authority to speak both on the record and on background (e.g. don’t make him or her check in with Boston before going off script).
Romney’s foreign policy positions are sound ( e.g. stick by friends, maintain military strength to back up soft power). He is, on the merits, crafting a solidly conservative but not overreaching view of America’s obligations and challenges. He is, however, doing this, at times, despite and not because of his campaign apparatus. He should get his house in order. And soon.