Why Do Presidential Challengers Travel Abroad in an Election Year?
The New York Times reports that Romney will travel to Israel (and Britain) later this year:
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, will visit Israel this summer to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders, a senior aide to the prime minister confirmed on Monday evening.
There are several plausible explanations for why a presidential challenger would decide to travel abroad in the midst of the general election, but none of them is very satisfying. The simple explanation is that the candidate lacks or is perceived to lack foreign policy experience, and so tries to compensate for this by meeting with foreign dignitaries. Appearing with a foreign leader might raise the stature of the candidate, who is otherwise deprived of many of the advantages that come with the Presidency. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make much sense, since a few photo-ops and a quick trip overseas will hardly make up for a real deficit of knowledge or preparation. Indeed, an election-year trip abroad can draw attention to the candidate’s lack of preparation and have the opposite effect of the one intended. There is supposed to be some symbolic value in traveling overseas to make the candidate seem more plausibly presidential, which might help voters to imagine the candidate in that role, but this, too, doesn’t hold up very well. At best, the candidate will be perceived to be blatantly pandering to certain constituencies back home, and at worst he will be accused of grandstanding or ignoring American voters.
The most recent example of the nominee of the out-party going abroad during the general election is, of course, Obama. Among other things, the trip was meant to showcase the enthusiasm for Obama’s candidacy overseas, which was considerable at the time. Insofar as it lent credibility to the idea that Obama would repair America’s international reputation, it was a successful trip, but it’s questionable how much it benefited him. Romney certainly doesn’t have crowds of eager admirers interested in seeing him visit their countries, and his incessantly hegemonist rhetoric is likely to go over like a lead balloon with most foreign audiences. He will probably be well-received in Israel, since he has made a point of saying that he will align the U.S. with whatever the Israeli government does. Other than serving as a sop to a few hard-liners still upset that Obama hasn’t visited Israel, Romney’s visit to Israel has no discernible political value for him. It’s not as if he hasn’t been to Israel before (as the article says, this will be his fourth trip there), so it’s not clear what gets out of it. Considering Romney’s past association with the Olympics, going to London for the 2012 Games might make sense under other circumstances, but going there during the general election seems a somewhat odd things for him to do.
Unlike Obama, Romney is running against a sitting President during a time of very slow (and possibly stalling) economic recovery. That makes the decision to spend any time out of the country even harder to understand. It’s not as if a challenger has the luxury of taking time away from domestic campaigning. Besides, it runs the risk of blunting a message that ought to be focused almost entirely on the domestic economy, which is hardly helped by appearing alongside Netanyahu or attending the 2012 opening ceremonies. Instead of spending whatever time these trips take campaigning and hammering Obama on his stewardship of the economy, Romney is choosing to waste it on foreign travel that isn’t going to change the reality that he lacks foreign policy experience.