James Joyner does his best to defend Romney against Biden’s foreign policy criticism this week:
But, of course, Romney is a veritable Henry Kissinger compared to the Barack Obama we elected in 2008. Hell, just running the 2002 Olympics gives him more foreign policy experience than Obama had coming in to the Oval Office.
I don’t think James really believes that successfully re-organizing a major international athletic competition is relevant to the conduct or understanding of foreign policy. It’s not a bad line as far as it goes, but it doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. Romney can cite his experience from the Salt Lake City games as proof that he is a competent executive and manager in terms of turning around an operation’s ailing finances, but no one is going to accept that it gives him foreign policy experience. Claiming this is not that far removed from saying that a governor has experience in international affairs simply because his state borders a foreign country.
There’s no question that Obama’s foreign policy experience in 2007-08 was very minimal. A few years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a good working relationship with Dick Lugar were not terribly impressive qualifications. At any other time in recent history, Obama could not have won a major party’s presidential nomination or the general election with so few qualifications. Of course, one of the main reasons that he did win was that the Bush administration had thoroughly trashed the reputation of the GOP with the invasion of Iraq, and it destroyed the party’s reputation for foreign policy competence in the process. After the debacle of the Bush years, Republicans were in no position to be taken seriously on these issues. Obama was fortunate to have come from a part of the country and a part of Illinois where early opposition to the Iraq war was the politically safe position to take.
What Romney and his supporters can’t deny is that he has even less foreign policy experience than Obama did four years ago, which puts him at an even more significant disadvantage against Obama now. That might not matter if there were reason to believe that Romney had given a lot of serious thought to the positions he has taken, but there isn’t. We would all agree that the quality of a candidate’s arguments and the depth of understanding are more important than a certain number of years as a time-server in Congress. If Romney were not in the habit of saying preposterous things about U.S. policies or simply making things up in order to have something to criticize, he might be able to counter the inexperience charge with coherent objections to Obama’s actual mistakes. He has chosen to campaign differently.
The main obstacle for any challenger is to persuade the public that he is prepared and able to fulfill the responsibilities of the office he’s seeking. Romney has been badly failing that test up until now. Twelve years ago, Bush was more or less able to pass the test for three reasons: 1) the bar had effectively been lowered for him because he was surrounded by many veterans of his father’s administration, which reassured doubters that an uninformed and inexperienced governor would be in good hands; 2) Bush and his campaign did not go out of their way to make alarming or ridiculous statements on foreign policy; 3) the public was concerned almost entirely about domestic issues, so Bush’s inexperience wasn’t held against him as much as it normally would have (and in retrospect should have) been.
We now know that #1 was no guarantee of competence or good judgment, and Romney has already ignored #2 several times in just the last few months. We have tested the hypothesis that it didn’t matter that Bush didn’t know very much about the rest of the world, and I don’t think the electorate will be eager for a repeat. Let’s remember that it was Romney who decided as far back as 2009 when he published his book that foreign policy attacks would be a major part of his campaign. Domestic issues are probably more relevant now than they were in 2000, which is why it makes no sense for Romney to draw attention to his foreign policy agenda on a regular basis. He eagerly invited the skewering that we’re going to see over the next six months.
Obama was also fortunate to be competing in the general election in 2008 with a Republican nominee so consistently wrong on important international issues that Obama seemed preferable almost by default. Obama effectively neutralized the Clinton/McCain attack on his inexperience by pointing out (correctly) that many officials and politicians with decades of experience had endorsed the costliest foreign policy blunder in a generation. Lacking much experience, Obama argued that good judgment was the most important qualification. In fact, this is still what his campaign is arguing now. In addition to criticizing Romney for his inexperience, they are questioning his ability to make sound judgments on these issues, and Romney has so far given us no good reason to think this criticism is invalid. I doubt Romney will lose an election he would otherwise win because of his weakness on foreign policy, because the election will be decided by other factors, but there shouldn’t be any confusion that Romney is exceptionally weak on these issues for a Republican nominee.