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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war