Is there any reason to think that a Romney presidency will be different from George W. Bush’s presidency? If so, why? In what ways?
The common answer that I’ve seen other people give is entirely focused on personality and psychology. This is the idea that Romney has a different temperament that makes him both risk-averse and more flexible than the famously stubborn Bush. This is why we’re supposed to believe that his hawkish rhetoric doesn’t mean anything, because he would not be as reckless as Bush was. According to this view, Romney is a “pragmatist” as opposed to the more ideological Bush, and he is “data-driven” rather than someone inclined to follow his instincts. All of that could be true, and it still wouldn’t make much difference in terms of policy.
It might mean that Romney would be more or less effective in carrying out Bush-era policies, but the policies would be largely the same. On foreign policy, all of the evidence suggests that Romney’s conduct in office would be very similar to Bush’s. Romney seems more inclined to provoke other major powers than Bush was, but this is a difference of degree rather than of kind. The possibility that few people are willing to imagine is that Romney’s policies will be similar to Bush’s on most issues (except maybe immigration), but Romney will be even worse than Bush at presenting them and selling them to the public.
Matt Steinglass commented recently on Romney’s political ineptitude, describing Romney’s foreign tour as “a bit of a horn-honking, floppy-shoed clown show.” The title of Steinglass’ post was “Like Bush, but without the cosmopolitan flair,” which points to what we can expect from a Romney administration: political incompetence instead of administrative failure. Steinglass’ jibe identifies two of Romney’s weaknesses: he seems to be largely uninterested in the rest of the world, except when it serves as an arena used to showcase American “leadership,” and he is remarkably tone-deaf when speaking to and about other nations. The tone-deafness is partly a function of his lack of interest, and some of it comes from the bad advice he is getting from the likes of Dan Senor. No matter the reason for it, this ensures that he will irritate and annoy other nations with some regularity.
It’s true that Romney can pander to the groups that he is trying to court at the moment, but he usually does so in such an overreaching, excessive way that he inevitably alienates and angers more people than he pleases. This is why he ends up saying so many preposterous things ranging from “double Gitmo” to “not one inch of difference” to “number one geopolitical foe.” He doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between the pandering necessary to satisfy his target audience and embarrassing overkill. Meanwhile, his campaign is filled with and surrounded by people convinced that Bush’s foreign policy was not poorly conceived so much as it was poorly executed. Many of Romney’s advisers seem to believe that Bush’s mistake was that he didn’t go far enough and scaled back his administration’s ambitions in the second term. Romney will likely govern along the same lines as Bush in most things, but in his conduct of foreign policy he will probably not be as diplomatic.