x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Blatantly dishonest campaign for the US presidency

Mitt Romney has changed his stance on so many issues that Americans can't know what they will get if they elect him to the White House.

During the last few weeks of the US presidential campaign, I have become terribly confused listening to candidate Mitt Romney address US foreign policy challenges.

I have followed Mr Romney's every word for almost two years now, and I simply don't recognise the guy who spoke at the Virginia Military Institute on October 8 or the one who showed up to debate President Barack Obama last week.

Since the beginning of this long campaign, Mr Romney has given 10 foreign policy addresses. At every turn he has positioned himself as a critic of the Obama administration, condemning the president for "diminishing American leadership" and "betraying the trust that allies place in the United States". Taking his cue from his neoconservative advisers, Mr Romney has appeared to embrace their tenets and even conflated their projection of US exceptionalism with elements of his own Mormon creed. His message has been that "America must lead through strength" and use its "great power to shape history".

And so it has been baffling to witness the sudden transformation of Mr Romney largely agreeing with Mr Obama's approach while feigning sharp criticism. Fundamentally he seems to agree with current policies. Mr Romney lamented the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (after recently dismissing the entire effort as hopeless) and offered benign pronouncements such as "we can't kill our way out of this mess" or "we don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan".

Listening to this kinder, gentler Mr Romney, two questions came to mind. Is this a tactical ploy to sway undecided voters? Or is this the candidate's declaration of independence from his neoconservative advisers (three-quarters of whom are Bush administration alumni)? Since Mr Romney has selectively veered away from many of his other severely conservative views during the last few weeks of the campaign, I believe that it is more of a tactical move than an assertion of independence.

In describing Mr Romney's effort at a latter-day makeover, Mr Obama has coined the word "Romnesia", suggesting that the candidate may have forgotten the positions he embraced throughout the campaign. I disagree. I don't think Mr Romney has forgotten a thing. I think he's counting on the fact that his base knows the game that's afoot and is willing to give him space to manoeuvre.

The projection of the new Mr Romney is directed at those Americans who are only now tuning in to the presidential contest and are being introduced to the candidate for the first time. Mr Romney is hoping that they will get to know him in his newly minted moderate incarnation. He is also hoping that undecided voters will not recall the Mr Romney of the primaries and actually believe that this kinder and gentler version is the one running for president.

I found it interesting that some non-partisan commentators remarked after the most recent debate that both candidates seemed, at times, a bit off stride. It was no wonder. Mr Romney has been playing a part for years now.

Once dismissed as the seemingly moderate governor of a liberal state, he was disliked by the religious right and not trusted by the new Republican Party with its Tea Party activists and neoconservative brain-trust. And so Mr Romney remade himself into the conservatives' darling.

Back in 2008 when this transformation began, I didn't know what was more unbelievable - that Mr Romney had in fact become a conservative, or that conservatives really believed that he was a conservative. He embraced his new identity to such a degree that in his now-infamous recorded off-the-cuff conversation with donors, dismissing 47 per cent of Americans as overly dependent on the state, he rather comfortably elaborated how compatible his hard-line views were with the party's new mainstream.

I don't doubt for a minute that this new moderate posture is a bit disconcerting to candidate Mr Romney. Cynics sometimes say that in politics the best actor wins. But becoming a different person may have been too much of a stretch for Mr Romney.

Candidates change their positions on critical issues over a period of years. They sometimes even make a convincing case about the evolution of their views on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or global warming. But to change in two weeks, without offering any explanation, is too much.

So I understand why the president was caught a bit off stride. He had prepared to debate the candidate whom we had all come to know for the past few years. Even Senator John Kerry, who had taken the Romney part in the president's debate preparation, expressed his surprise at much of what Mr Romney said. Mr Kerry remarked that these weren't the positions they had prepared to contest, nor was this the candidate they had prepared to debate.

The Mitt Romney who showed up on debate night was a different person. The questions for voters will be: for which Mr Romney are they being asked to vote? And should he win, which Mitt Romney would show up for work?


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa