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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.