x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Mitt Romney's foreign tour falls flat

The US Republican presidential candidate's attempts to sell himself to world leaders was plagued by gaffes. James Langton assesses if he has what it takes for the White House.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

It was famously said that the late President Gerald Ford was "unable to walk and chew gum at the same time". It may yet be said of the Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, that he "finds difficulty in walking and talking at the same time" following his controversial "no apology for America" global tour. But Romney's team is in no mood to apologise for some of the candidate's stumblebum antics that have landed him in hot water, not least in Britain and Israel.

This is no mean feat, when oneconsiders that these countries - along with Poland - had been chosen by Romney because they were deemed America's closest allies and who had "stood for freedom", in stark contrast to Obama's "weak policy" of placating enemies of the United States. This is not forgetting Romney's sotto voce reference to Anglo Saxon values while alluding to Obama's removal of Winston Churchill's bust from the Oval Office and other slights to the British.

In surveying the wreckage of Romney's global tour, it might be more accurate to compare him with the bumbling cartoon figure Mr Magoo. Magoo famously kept walking into things, knocking them over, and muttering before crashing into the next obstacle. Fortunately however for Romney, some of the British media commentariat and much of the European political class believe that the act was put on for domestic supporters and donors - such as pro-Israel billionaire casino magnate and Romney backer Sheldon Adelson - and "realist Romney" will arrive on the scene once he sets foot in the White House. Adelson is one of the biggest donors to the Republican Party, having donated more than US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to the "Restore Our Future" campaign aimed at defeating Obama and putting Romney into the White House. He is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, which puts him at odds with US policy, the policies of the United States' allies and the United Nations.

The alternative, canvassed in some liberal British newspapers - that Romney is deadly serious - is too frightening to countenance. No wonder the Democrats have had viral fun playing up the line from a CNN anchor: "It's a good thing the British do not vote in our elections."

In London, Romney got off to a bad start by alluding to his own starring role in leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, while warning the British prime minister David Cameron that the preparations for the London Olympic Games were not quite up to scratch. Cue embarrassed silence. On being introduced to Britain's Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, Romney blustered, held out his hand, and said lamely: "Hello, Mr Leader."

In increasingly parochial Britain, such fairly innocent blunders are tannoyed up and down the land. Fortunately for Romney, the media were too lazy or ill-informed to attempt a stakeout on the $28K (Dh102,000)-a-plate fundraising dinner organised in London by, amongst others, senior executives from Barclays Bank. The guest speaker was due to have been Bob Diamond, the disgraced and now dismissed former chief executive of Barclays Bank. The bank is now being investigated on both sides of the Atlantic for manipulating interest rates to boost profits and bankers' welfare packages, more commonly known as "bonuses".

To sit down and break bread with the Barclays bankers would be the kiss of death for any British politician right now. But will the "Mitt the Twit" headlines in the British headlines punish Romney back home?

Probably not, says Jeff Gold, a Democratic Party campaigner and organiser. Gold worked with the late Edward Kennedy when Romney ran against him in Massachusetts. "It's whatever moves the base domestically that counts," he says. "Don't think those headlines will mean a thing to this domestic, totally inwards-looking voting base, particularly in the summer. Only elites and we politicos are paying any attention at all right now."

That may well be the case in the United States. But in Britain and in much of the rest of Europe, the Romney tour is being compared to Barack Obama's pre-presidential "get to reassure the globe" tour.

After Iraq, after the triumphalism of the "new American century" and the predations of the neocons, Europe was desperate to be reassured, and largely was. Obama's promise may subsequently have become a muffled, partial reality but for good or ill, his role in the dispatch of Osama bin Laden makes it especially difficult for Romney to attack the President on national security issues. Recently, Admiral William McRaven, who supervised the raid that killed bin Laden, was asked his opinion of Obama's overall performance. "Fantastic," he said.

The Middle East will have been much more alive to the appearance and sayings of the man who might be President. Romney could have travelled to Tunis, where the Arab Spring burst into life; he could have moved on to Cairo in order to congratulate the Egyptians on their ongoing and peaceful revolution. He might have given some verbal succour to the embattled civilians of Damascus and Aleppo. Instead, he went to Israel and pronounced - in contravention of United Nations and international law - that Jerusalem was "the capital of Israel", and put Palestinian poverty down to "cultural differences" and the "hand of providence", rather than an ongoing Israeli occupation. He delighted the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his tough and supportive stance over possible Israeli pre-emptive action against Iranian nuclear targets, and heaped praise on Israel's impressive, government-run universal health care system. Seasoned Democrat campaigners such as Jeff Gold will have spotted this monumental gaffe - given Romney's opposition to the limited Obama healthcare reforms - and make good use of it.

Is this the real Romney or is it an ersatz variety playing to a hardened domestic and Republican base? Not forgetting of course that the Republican Party has never really fallen in love with him and that he has had to try very hard and spend a lot of money to become the party's candidate.

His problem, says Jeff Gold again, is one identified by Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute. It is that his party has "become an insurgent outlier - ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition".

By the time that the Romney entourage creaked into the safest berth of the trip, Poland, some of the criticism from earlier was clearly beginning to hit home. Romney's Press Secretary Rick Gork lashed out at reporters asking about the gaffes, telling them to "kiss my ass" and to "shove it". He later apologised but Romney's first outing with the foreign media had not been a success. Time and gain the same question emerged: what does Mitt Romney really believe in?

But then perhaps Romney has got a better measure of what many Americans really believe are their priorities and which should be his too. The best joke of the week may well be: "No wonder Romney is finding it difficult to picking a Vice-President - he has no experience of hiring American workers".

However, Obama remains most vulnerable on the domestic economy, although the ferociously wealthy Romney has little experience of the lives led by most blue collar Americans. For, bluntly, Romney has got the foreign stuff out of the way. He has reminded US voters who he thinks their best friends are (Britain and Israel), identified the military threat posed by a long time US enemy (Iran) and begun to stake out some hostile ground with the Chinese, who are set to provide the long, slow burn, threat to US economic well-being

Already in Florida, big motorway billboards financed by Republican supporters show Greek demonstrators burning a building with an unflattering picture of Obama hovering above: "Do you want the US to be like Greece? Vote Obama".

Perhaps, at this stage, the cynics are right. Romney has done the necessary, and while liberals may fret, few outside their ranks in the United States see anything unusual or disturbing in what he has had to do or say. Quite the reverse possibly.

The Biog

March 12, 1947 Born in Detroit, Michigan. He is a member of the Mormon Church.

1969 Marries Ann Davies. They have five sons.

1971 Obtains Bachelor of Arts from Brigham Young University, Utah.

1984 Co-founds Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm.

1994 Runs for US Senate in Massachusetts but loses to Edward Kennedy.

2003 Elected governor of Massachusetts.

2008 Runs for Republican presidential nomination but John McCain wins it.

2012 Announces bid for Republican presidential nomination.