Running for president of the United States requires that a candidate show some foreign policy moxie. In 2008, Barack Obama, up against John McCain, needed to convey a new vision for America’s role in the world after eight years of the Bush administration. He did not, however, need to make new policy as a presidential contender on foreign soil. And he certainly had to make sure to be gracious to his hosts. Overall, Obama’s foreign travels during the 2008 campaign were just a big photo opportunity — and by all indications he succeeded at that.
Mitt Romney, taking a page from Obama’s 2008 playbook, embarked on his very own foreign trip last week. All he needed to do was to be gracious. After all, he is up against an incumbent and foreign leaders don’t want to be seen as interfering in a campaign that could very well end up with the reelection of the incumbent.
Romney, however, was off to a risky start. His choice of countries to visit –England, Israel and Poland– betrayed an attempt to transpose his campaign narrative to foreign soil. A trip to London would put the spotlight on his credentials as an Olympics organizer, in Israel he would score points domestically with American Jews, and flying to Poland would be an obvious nod to the neo conservative foreign policy establishment.
Early indications, though, are that where Obama stayed on script, Romney strayed off. As a result, foreign leaders (see here, here and here) undermined much of what Romney wanted to accomplish in all three countries. For campaign managers back home it must have been nothing short of a nightmare. The only consolation is that foreign policy will hardly be an issue on voters’ minds on November 6.
Yet, Romney’s stumbles abroad mirror his party’s errors at home. Republican attempts at formulating policy on the campaign trail inevitably seem to alienate important voter groups — Latinos, women and gays. Romney, for his part, has been running away from a respectable record as governor of Massachusetts, choosing instead to highlight his record at the helm of a private equity firm, which has made him vulnerable to attacks on the very touchy issue of job creation.
So far, his campaign has been one of kowtowing to the hard right. And that’s exactly what he did in his foreign excursion, flirting with a neo conservative approach in the Middle East that is completely out of step with his country’s current posturing in the region. The time to pander has run its course. It is time he comes home to reset his campaign before it’s too late.