Mitt Romney got off to a bad start on his foreign tour with a few ill-timed comments on Olympic preparations in London. The traveling press, eager to hammer the Republican challenger, soon made other supposed gaffes by Romney the theme of their coverage of his other two stops, in Israel and Poland. An astounding 86 percent of the stories covering Romney’s foreign trip on the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were negative.
The second alleged gaffe was Romney’s statement in Jerusalem that culture had something to do with Israel’s success. That would seem an uncontroversial statement, but when Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat called that racist toward the Palestinians, he found a willing audience of reporters ready to broadcast his view that offense had been taken by the Palestinians, and so Romney had another gaffe to explain.
The third gaffe, according to the media, was that Romney’s campaign aides became angry at reporters at the stop in Warsaw. The reporters did not want to ask about Lech Walesa’s endorsement of Romney, but rather about the gaffes on the first two foreign two stops.
As Charles Krauthammer wrote in ”Romney’s Excellent Trip,” the real story was that both Israel and Poland were successful stops for Romney.
On Poland: “The Warsaw leg was a triumph. Romney’s speech warmly embraced Poland’s post-communist experiment as a stirring example of a nation committed to limited government at home and a close alliance with America abroad, even unto such godforsaken war zones as Afghanistan and Iraq, at great cost to itself and with little thanks.”
On Israel: “And at his previous stop, Jerusalem, Romney’s speech was a masterpiece of nuance and restraint. Without directly criticizing Obama, Romney drew pointed distinctions deftly expressed in the code words and curlicued diction of Middle East diplomacy.
"He declared flatly that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The official Obama position is that Israel’s capital is to be determined in negotiations with the Palestinians. On Iran, Romney asserted that Israel has the right to defend itself. Obama says this as boilerplate. Romney made clear he means it — that if Israel has to attack, the United States won’t flash the red light before nor punish Israel afterward.”
Romney’s comments on Jerusalem followed a series of embarrassing responses by Obama administration officials when they were asked to name the capital of Israel. Jay Carney, the Obama administration’s official press spokesman, was particularly unwilling to identify any city as the capital of Israel.
Barry Rubin has identified the source of the administration’s problem on Jerusalem — it is still in 1947 partition agreement thinking about Jerusalem, even though west Jerusalem was part of the entity admitted as a state to the United Nations after the 1948 war.
On Sunday, the Romney campaign released an ad on U.S. relations with Israel that clearly parted company with the administration’s obfuscation on Jerusalem, and which hit Obama for not having visited Israel during his term in office. The ad, called “Cherished Relationship,” is an indication that the Romney campaign believes that not only is the Jewish vote in play, but that Israel is an important way to consolidate the support of Evangelicals for his campaign.
In the race for the nomination, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was the favorite of Evangelicals, and Romney had some difficulty securing votes from this large Republican-heavy voting group. Whether this was due to Romney’s Mormon faith, or to his positions on various hot-button social issues, which have changed over time, is unclear.
But support for Israel is a hot-button issue in the Evangelical community. A shift towards Romney among Jewish voters will help the challenger primarily in Florida, and to a lesser extent in Ohio, Colorado and Nevada, among the toss-up states. But there are large numbers of Evangelicals in most of the competitive midwestern and southern states — North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Iowa most prominent among them. The 2012 election may well be decided by which candidate does a better job of turning out his core supporters. The Romney ad on Israel is evidence that the Obama campaign is vulnerable on the subject, and that Romney need not worry about having committed any gaffe in Israel.
In the last few weeks, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel have released TV, print and web ads on Israel. The RJC ad series has a “buyers’ remorse” theme — Obama 2008 voters in individual states where the ad runs explain why they have abandoned the president this time around. The two reasons the voters give: the weak economy and Obama’s hostility towards Israel, which they think will become more of a problem in a second term. In the past few weeks, there has been additional ammunition handed to Romney, as liberal Democrats such as Aaron David Miller and Marty Peretz have endorsed the notion that Obama has a problem with Israel, and that there is real risk for U.S.-Israeli relations in a second term.
So too, the Polish portion of Romney’s trip may pay dividends for the future nominee. Illinois has the highest Polish population of any U.S. state, and that state is safely in the Obama column this year. However, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania also have substantial Polish communities, and the president only has modest single digit leads in these four states.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, known for a gaffe or two (every time he opens his mouth), said earlier in the year that the president’s campaign message this year could be boiled down to this: “General Motors is alive and bin Laden is dead.”
Now that GM is sinking again — in both earnings and stock prices — that supposed great success looks more like the rest of the struggling economy. The bin Laden raid is probably the most popular achievement of the president’s first term in office. But on the foreign policy front, his poor relations with Israel are the least popular. It looks unseemly for Obama and Biden to “spike the football“ at this point on bin Laden, but the president’s Israel problems are not going away.
Israel may not be the only foreign country that shows up in future Romney ads. There could well be an ad on Poland and Obama's abandonment of one more ally. There could be an ad about the president’s promising his then-Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev that in his second term “he will have more flexibility,” and asking Medvedev to relay this message to Vladimir Putin.
Over the last few weeks, the Obama campaign has slid into 100 percent attack mode: Romney is a tax cheat, and a felon, Romney outsourced jobs at Bain, Republicans only care about the rich. This is a sign that the Obama campaign knows that there is little in the president’s record to run on, so they need to make the alternative unpalatable. The press will dutifully do its job to muddy up Romney.
The election may well be decided on whether Romney can rise above the negativity and present an alternative vision. A majority of voters seem to think the president has failed. If the Obama campaign defines Romney before he has a chance to present himself to voters, he may well lose. The new ads suggest that Romney sees an opportunity in targeting voters on specific issues that concern them, rather than playing defense on Bain Capital and his tax returns. That is a good sign.