Conventions are the seventh-inning stretch of presidential politics, a pause to consider the interminable prelude and the coming climax. Republicans gathering in Tampa face an unusual election in which they do not have a substantial advantage concerning the most presidential subject, foreign policy.
This is not because their nominee has weak foreign-policy credentials, which are not weaker than Barack Obama’s were four years ago. And it is not because some of Mitt Romney’s policy expostulations during the nominating process — e.g., “We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban” — promise a limitless elongation of an 11-year exercise in mission creep that the public is sensibly eager to liquidate. And it is not because there are no ominous potentialities: Both Romney and Obama seem committed to a third regional war if, as is highly probable, Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons. (Israel could make foreign policy central in the U.S. campaign by striking Iran.) And it is not because the world has become tranquil — although the world, which Romney calls “dangerous, destructive, chaotic,” is less so than at any time since the 1920s, measured by the likelihood of people dying from organized violence.
Rather, the eclipse of foreign policy is a result of this perverse Obama accomplishment: He has proved that the locution “growth recession” is not oxymoronic. During this recovery, now in its fourth year, the economy often has grown so slowly that job creation rarely, and then barely, matched the growth of the workforce. Perhaps Romney should rejoice that economic anxieties have marginalized foreign policy: The last time a businessman was nominated in a period of national-security tensions — Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940 — he lost.
There have been 11 elections since two Democratic presidents committed the United States to a protracted war of attrition in Indochina — John Kennedy by complicity in regime-change-by-coup; Lyndon Johnson by incontinent escalation. In those 11 elections, the Democratic Party, wounded by its riotous 1968 convention and its 1972 nomination of George McGovern, has elected just three presidents. Jimmy Carter won after Vietnam was lost. Bill Clinton won after the Cold War was won. Barack Obama won after the nation recoiled against foreign overreaching: Iraq.
The eclipse of foreign policy underscores the rationality of Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan. The youngest vice presidential choice since Dan Quayle in 1988, Ryan guarantees that the Republican message — certainly subliminally, perhaps explicitly — will be Obama’s immaturity, which is writ large in the childishness of his characteristic rhetorical evasion: Every difficult choice is, he says, “a false choice.” And the maturity gap between the two tickets is underscored by the serial buffoonery of the oldest candidate on either ticket, the 69-year-old fellow currently a heartbeat away from the presidency.
One peculiarity of this political season’s first seven innings was the selection of a fundamentally non-ideological presidential candidate by a Republican Party that, under the beneficent influence of the tea party, has never been more ideological or more ideologically homogenous. The Ryan selection ameliorates this incongruity.
The incongruity, however, explains why Romney may be able to win with a Big Ten strategy. Until last year, when Nebraska joined this athletic conference, it extended from State College, Pa., to Iowa City, Iowa. Romney enters the final innings competitive in those two states, as well as in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, which means he is poised to correct a Republican problem: The party has been too dependent on the South, understood as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky.
In the past five presidential elections, Republican candidates have received an average of 64 percent of their electoral votes from the South. In 2000, George W. Bush became the first Republican to win the presidency while losing the electoral and popular votes outside the South. The party’s Southern cast was one reason John McCain in 2008 did not carry any suburb contiguous to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit or Chicago.
Such places are habitats of people who by now may be lightly attached Obama voters — people who like the idea of him but not the results of him. As Holman W. Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal astutely writes, “Obama’s great political talent has been his knack for granting his admirers permission to think highly of themselves for thinking highly of him.” Romney’s great political challenge is to wean them away by making them faintly embarrassed about their former infatuation.