Despite apparently putting Obama in the ground during last week’s first presidential debate, I still feel sorry for Mitt Romney sometimes. For all of his apparent strengths, the man seems singularly incapable of maintaining one line of thought about any subject for more than about 15 minutes. The clearest example of this was on display just a few minutes ago when the Republican nominee finished his signature foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute. The “Romney Doctrine” for lack of a better phrase is fairly simple and easy to follow. It amounts to back-tracking on what Romney has said for most of the spring, and doing exactly what Obama has been doing, only asking much louder and with a Republican stamp.
This is not meant to be glib or dismissive of Mitt Romney, but essentially he’s in an almost untenable position. Barack Obama has gobbled up just about all of the policy space that the Republicans used to own on foreign policy, and that’s before you even think of Osama bin Laden. We live in a bizarro political world where the DNC convention hall was filled with chants of “Osama bin Laden is Dead and GM is Alive,” and Republicans are left wondering where they will stand when Obama already took their seat. So in Romney’s speech today he laid out some key policies, but very few are different from the current president and few may actually be possible.
1. Make our NATO allies pay up: One of Romney’s biggest long term critiques of the Obama administration is that apparently only two of the 28 members of the NATO coalition actually pay their fair share of the cost for maintaining the organization (2% of their GDP). Romney claimed in his speech that he would rectify this. But how exactly, as usual, is not that clear for the GOP nominee. Aren’t these the same European nations that he regularly insults and refers to as socialist, backwater vacation spots? The United States and Europe’s relationship with NATO is like that roommate you have who never washes the dishes. Eventually the dishes will pile up, you’ll complain, leave angry post-it notes and texts but everyone knows what’s going to happen. In the end, YOU’LL wash the dishes, they know that, and you know that, so why change? European nations know that the U.S.’s aggressive foreign policy requires a healthy NATO so we will always pony up the bill when needed. Besides, according to Romney European nations are broke anyway because of their socialist policies.
2. Stop Arbitrary Cuts to Defense Budget: This is the part where Romney, who is supposedly tacking to the center (isn’t that another word for flip-flopping?) could’ve made a name for himself but didn’t. He repeatedly assailed the president in his speech for allowing drastic and seemingly arbitrary cuts in the defense budget over the next decade. But how did that happen? Oh that’s right – it was the REPUBLICAN CONGRESS. The final deal (that nobody liked) in order to raise the debt ceiling was that if a new deal could not be formed and agreed upon by both sides, automatic cuts would occur in social programs (an incentive for Democrats) and in the military (an incentive for Republicans). These are not arbitrary cuts, they were agreed upon after an acrimonious and unproductive negotiation process. What Romney should have done is said he plans on renegotiating the debt deal to save military cuts. But that’s too much like a specific plan.
3. Encourage Free Trade Abroad: Romney simply lied in his speech when claiming that President Obama has not signed “One Free Trade agreement in 4 years”. The president signed three major trade agreements last fall, dealing with nations all over the world. This is the kind of lying that fact-checkers should go crazy over.
4. Improve Relations with Israel: I have no doubt that Romney could improve relations with Israel, but I’m not sure if he’s willing to pay for it. Relations between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been pretty frosty of late, but that is less due to ideological issues than with changing American economic and foreign policy views. The truth is that while important the United States has slowly been moving to developing a policy against Iran that is independent of Israel. Israel as per the usual is always itching for a fight, but in all honesty if there was sincere concern about a nuclear Iran, Israel would act independently of the United States as they have in the past. There is very little Obama or a president Romney could do about that.
In the end, this policy speech does little or nothing to change the dynamics of the presidential campaign. A 20 minute speech on foreign policy on a Monday morning during Columbus day is not going to become a hot topic at anyone’s afternoon barbecue. However, it does set the stage for the final debate with Obama and Romney on foreign policy. Romney’s foreign policy is basically the same wishful thinking that all challengers have when they aren’t the ones looking at the secret policy papers, and for that I don’t blame the GOP nominee. However, he can be called to task on his failure to demonstrate consistency or lay out a realistic view of the three main issues he has with the president’s policies. Just because you won the debate doesn’t mean you’re suddenly the most credible man in America Mr. Romney.