First, the bad news for Mitt Romney: What should have been an easy, photo-op-driven trip abroad by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was marred by gaffes and other miscues – culminating in a press aide’s off-color admonition to pushy reporters.
The good news is that these are the dog days of summer, and most voters aren’t paying attention – especially the swing voters who will decide the election. It’s also good for Mr. Romney that foreign policy barely registers as a voter concern. President Obama already wins that issue in polls.
Still, in traveling to London, Israel, and Poland over the past week, Romney was hoping to build up a thin aspect of his résumé, foreign-policy experience. He did deliver some well-received speeches, interact with foreign leaders, raise campaign cash from Americans abroad, and get the requisite footage of himself on the world stage.
And as painful as some of the moments may have been for Romney, with a news-hungry press corps ready to pounce on every ill-chosen word, the trip could end up being a valuable learning experience, analysts say.
“Most candidates who have not been on the world stage before often realize that it’s just a bigger stage than they thought,” says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "You find out that there’s a lot more land mines out there in the international arena.”
What Romney went through was not all that atypical for a novice, Mr. Geer says, noting, for example, the extraordinary complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations. “The question is, is there any kind of learning curve from it?” he says.
To recap: Romney’s first eyebrow-raiser came in London, when he expressed reservations to Brian Williams of NBC about London’s readiness to host the summer Olympics, calling some issues “disconcerting.” That opened a torrent of criticism from the British press, and chiding from Prime Minister David Cameron and London’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
In Israel, Romney insulted Palestinians when he spoke of “cultural differences” leading to their sluggish economy. He also had to correct the impression that he would approve a unilateral military strike by Israel to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. It is considered bad form for an opposition politician to contradict US policy while traveling abroad.
In Poland, Romney’s traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, cursed at reporters for shouting questions at Romney during a visit to Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Frustrations had come to a boil over the candidate’s limited availability to the press: He took only three questions the entire trip.
But as unprofessional as Mr. Gorka’s reaction may have been – he later apologized to some of the reporters – taking on the political press rarely carries a downside with American voters.
As Romney flew back to the US Tuesday, Team Obama held a conference call to reinforce the negatives of the trip, calling it “an embarrassing disaster.”
But Romney defenders call it a largely positive venture. He got good coverage back in the US for his Israel trip – especially given his personal friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and may have built some goodwill among Jewish voters, especially important in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, key swing states. The visit with former Polish President Lech Walesa, an icon of the Solidarity pro-democracy movement in the 1980s, seemed aimed at Polish-American voters in the crucial Midwest battleground.
Some Republicans have questioned the wisdom of taking the trip in the first place. After all, this election is about the economy, not foreign policy. With the summer Olympics under way, it’s possible Romney thought he could fly under the radar, at least somewhat. But having decided to go, Team Romney needed to make sure the candidate was prepared, say GOP strategists.
“You can’t hope for the best, you have to prepare for the worst,” says Ford O’Connell, head of the conservative Civic Forum PAC. “I don’t know if they recognized the level of scrutiny they’d be under. We’re in a global economy, we’re in a global press.”
Some press coverage has suggested that Romney went abroad understaffed. In contrast with then-candidate Barack Obama’s largely successful foreign campaign trip in the summer of 2008, Romney brought along only a handful of senior staff. Then-Senator Obama brought along at least 14 top staffers and advisers, including former National Security Adviser Tony Lake and longtime diplomat Dennis Ross, according to the Washington Post.
Only three senior staffers accompanied Romney for his entire trip, two with foreign policy portfolios. A handful of other foreign policy advisers joined Romney for parts of the tour, the Post reports.