Romney Digs His Own Grave on Foreign Policy, and His Trip Abroad Isn’t Going to Change That
I hope Larison and Logan would agree that, political imperatives aside, it would be A Good Thing for the Country if presidential candidates talked more about foreign policy. Presidents have much more leeway in conducting foreign policy than domestic policy. They wind up spending about half their time and energy as president on foreign policy. Given its importance to the office, the fact that it’s not talked about all that much during the campaign is kinda problematic. It might be worthwhile for major party candidates to openly discuss/think about their foreign policy views just a bit.
There’s no disagreement on this point. It would be better for voters and for the U.S. on the international stage if presidential candidates addressed these issues more often and at greater length. The Foreign Affairs candidate essays from the last election cycle didn’t contain many surprises, but producing these essays forced all of the leading Republican and Democratic candidates to outline a more or less coherent agenda. We haven’t had that in this cycle. Republicans debated these issues during 2011 the primary season, but I think Drezner will agree that the foreign policy debate among the Republican candidates was mostly a joke. As a result, the discussion of foreign policy issues in this cycle has been carried out at a level that is even more superficial than in recent elections, and this is very undesirable.
Drezner agress with Logan and me that Romney inflicts damage on himself whenever he speaks on these issues, but he thinks this is why placating the grumbling Republican hawks is a good idea:
Third, and finally, Romney dug his own grave on this issue. In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case. In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place. If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism — and focus again on the economy in the fall. And eliminating base citicism matters domestically — the media tends to magnify within-party critiques as being more newsworthy.
All right, that’s a fair point. If going on this trip keeps other Republicans from bashing him in the press for his alleged indifference to foreign policy, it might be a necessary bit of damage control. That means that Romney’s foreign policy demagoguery so far has not been valuable for shoring up Republican support, and it has hurt his credibility on these issues so much that he feels compelled to repair the damage by spending valuable time in Europe and the Near East that probably could have been spent more profitably in the Midwest or Florida. If his op-eds have been nothing but “rhetorical bluster,” as Drezner says, surely it would be cheaper and easier to produce a new round of coherent, logical, and substantive op-eds to achieve the same effect as going on the trip.
Then again, Romney’s proposed itinerary suggests that his op-eds aren’t just bluster, but rather they represent what he believes to be a serious critique of Obama’s record. After all, why go to Poland if not to show that he wants his party-line attacks on missile defense and relations with Russia to be taken seriously? If Romney has already been digging his own grave on foreign policy, and I agree that he has, what will stop him from doing more damage after he returns from this trip?
Romney should be able to talk about these issues, and the public deserves to know his views on these and other issues, but it is clearly not in his political self-interest to do this. What if the lousy op-eds that have been put out in his name are the best that we can expect from the Romney campaign? If that’s true, it won’t matter how many other countries he visits or how many foreign leaders he meets. Foreign policy will remain a major weakness for Romney, and it makes sense for him and his campaign to try to hide that weakness rather than reveal it to all the world.