With his remarks in Israel, Mitt Romney is consolidating his hold on fringe voters

Romney is behaving as if he's still fighting a Republican primary.

Before he set off for a seven-day trip to Britain, Israel and Poland, Mitt Romney aimed to show voters back home what a real statesman looked like, not someone who "apologises" for American greatness.

Yet within hours of setting foot in London, the campaign for the Republican presidential hopeful was downplaying his overseas tour, saying Americans don't pay much attention to what happens beyond our borders — especially what the foreign press says about Romney.

This is true. We don't pay much attention to international news. We don't even pay much attention to our own news. But when big-deal newsmakers like Romney do something dumb and embarrassing and easy to mock, well, that's when we tend to pay attention.

Of course, I'm talking about Romney's remarks just before the opening of the 2012 Olympics in which he expressed worry that London wasn't up to the job of hosting the winter games. This aroused the various shades of indignation among the British punditocracy, harsh words from Prime Minister David Cameron and — most delicious of all — ridicule from London's theatrical mayor.

"There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!" Boris Johnson yells at a crowd of 60,000. All that was missing was a soundtrack by Gary Glitter.

Over the course of a day, Romney blew up his own case against President Barack Obama's foreign policy — which was, in brief, that Obama has somehow diminished America's standing abroad, and publicly expressed shame for American military might.

That was already a fairly weak case given the president's record on Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt — and on the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. About the only thing Romney has sunk his teeth into is the Obama administration's "bragging" after the terrorist's death, and frankly, that's weak too — however much he "bragged," only those who already hate Obama would hold that against him.

So whatever credibility Romney had in his case against the president's foreign policy withered away after David Cameron said it's easy to host an Olympics in the middle of nowhere, a dig at Romney's tenure at the 2002 summer games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

London, however, was fun-and-games compared to Israel, and it is there that we probably find Romney's real agenda. Indeed, it's the agenda he's had from the beginning of his White House run — locking in support from the GOP's conservative and radical right wings. 

Here's the typical pattern of American presidential elections. During primaries, candidates appeal to the margins of their parties, but once the general election begins, as it now has, candidates broaden their message to appeal to centrist voters. Obama has been doing that, but Romney, contrary to expectation, hasn't. Sometimes, in fact, is feels like he's still competing in the Republican primary.

A case in point. Earlier this month, Romney spoke to the annual convention of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), our highest-profile civil rights organisation. Other than making the rounds, as politicians do, many wondered why. Depending on the poll, Romney has the support of one or three per cent of African Americans, so he didn't go there to win votes. To the contrary, he ended up pissing people off, this time by saying he'd get rid of "nonessential" programs like "Obamacare".

Using the word "Obamacare" in another setting wouldn't have been controversial. But champions of civil rights know "dog-whistling" when they hear it, and "Obamacare" has quickly become part of the lexicon of white nationalism. This is not to say that Romney is a racist. I don't think he is. But he wasn't speaking to the NAACP. He was talking to that part of the Republican Party — probably working-class white Southerners — that responds well to a white candidate appearing to "stand up" to educated and affluent blacks.

Same thing in Israel. There, Romney said Jerusalem was the true capital of Israel. He also said no American president should publicly disagree with Israel. And later, he said Israeli "culture" is the reason for its prosperity relative to appalling poverty among Palestinians.

Yeah, these are not statements made by a man carving out a place in the middle of the political spectrum. To the contrary, Romney is consolidating his influence over the fringe — to wit, two kinds of outer-wing voter: 1) white evangelical Christians to whom Israel plays a central role in the biblical story of the apocalypse, and 2) ultra-conservative Jews who believe that Israel can do no wrong.

Obama has presided over the deepest economic nadir since the Great Depression, and as the first African-American president, he's the object of various and sundry forms of racism and conspiracism (think: birthers). Romney is hoping to build a coalition among disillusioned mainstream voters as well as energised fringe voters. In another context, Romney would be a lamb to the slaughter, but as it is, most of the polls show him dead-even with the president.

So, yeah, it was fun to watch Romney trip and fall in Britain, but as his spokespeople said, Americans don't pay attention to the foreign press. Hopefully, they will pay attention soon before it's too late.

 

Mitt Romney during his recent visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle