In three withering references at the end of a fiery 10-minute speech last night, the GOP front-runner depicted “Europe” as weak, socialist, an object of pity and, compared with the shining American model, lacking inspiration.
“I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become,” the potential next president said of his possible chief world ally.
President Obama, said Romney, “takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and towns across America for our inspiration.” Mr. Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style social welfare state. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.”
Poor Europe! Whatever happened to China-bashing?
To be sure, Romney’s speech in Manchester seemed aimed as much at the conservative voters of South Carolina, site of the next US primary, as to voters in New Hampshire, who gave him a clear victory. A third straight win might be a knockout blow for Romney and turn the current vitriolic GOP in-fighting into a search for Romney’s vice-presidential nominee.
So “Europe,” not New York City, may become a cultural punching bag in the southern strategy of the former governor of Massachusetts. Never mind that Romney spent two years as a Mormon missionary in France, speaks fluent French, and played the cosmopolitan host at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake. He won’t need to reveal his inner Bubba on the sweet potato circuit, or explain why his Massachusetts health care reforms took on a European character, if he runs against stereotypes of the old world in old Dixie.
Here in cheese-eating Europe, among the slouching Marxist masses that throng idle cafes and welfare centers, the US presidential election has barely made a dent. Kidding aside, it is mostly European editorial writers who have followed the US race. Romney may be politically safe in bashing Europe since the continent historically favors Democrats. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are loved. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the recent George Bush, not as much. America may have forgotten Iraq; Europe hasn't.
Here Romney, among those paying attention, is seen as the best of a dubious bunch. Romney’s comments this fall that God chose America to lead the world caused a small stir. But he is generally depicted as a moderate fighting off a troglodyte GOP that has shifted far to the right since the Tea Party stormed into Congress in 2010, and in last summer’s debt-ceiling debate nearly brought America’s government to a halt. That caught Europe's attention.
Romney is the “pragmatist business-oriented” candidate (Germany’s Die Welt) up against archconservative Christian evangelicals and others representing an “ultra-right drift” among Republicans (France’s Le Monde).
Last night’s Europe bashing by Romney “resurrected the simplistic neoconservative talking points…popularized by Robert Kagan, who said Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” comments Karim Emile Bitar, a researcher at France's Institute for International and Strategic Relations. “This cartoonish vision seems all the more startling in a changing world where both Europe and the US are confronted with the rise of emerging powers."
Romney may paint Obama, America’s first black president, as somehow European and thus foreign or less American. But if anything, the feeling in Europe is that the US head of state has largely ignored them, turning his gaze toward the Pacific and Asia when he is not removing troops from the wars of his predecessor.
If Europe is in decline, moreover, its leadership and political drift are moving to the right. In European terms, Britain’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy are Republicans, not leftists.
Romney’s stump speech recites the line, "I don't think Europe is working in Europe. I know it won't work here." But Obama’s Keynesian economics and the US use of the Federal Reserve are directly at odds with Chancellor Merkel on the world stage. Europe’s austerity and budget-cutting approach to the economic crisis is far closer to GOP ideas, including Romney’s, than to Obama’s.