These should be the dog days of the political campaign season, as we await Mitt Romney’s any-Portman-in-a-storm or I’ve-got-plenty-of-Pawlenty choice of running mate. But just as we braced for a two-week news blackout in deference to the Global Contest That Really Matters (a.k.a. the Olympics), Romney obligingly reanimated himself as an international man of mystery.
Romney’s first foreign trip as the de facto Republican presidential nominee has been so confounding that it requires tinkering with our working theories about who he is as a political leader and a would-be president. Even though Romney has been running more or less nonstop for president for the past five years, he remains an elusive figure. (As, for that matter, does President Barack Obama.) But Romney’s innocents-abroad tour of Britain, Israel and Poland helps add nuance and shading to our portrait of mystifying Mitt.
His quest for the gold began in London, a world capital that normally offers a visiting American politician fewer challenges than, say, Islamabad. But Romney could not have been more ham-handed if he had given a noogie to the Queen. His peculiarly impolitic comments about Olympic security led to him being belittled by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and mocked by flamboyant London Mayor Boris Johnson, also a Conservative. Romney then violated protocol by bragging that he had met with the head of the hush-hush British spy service MI6, which in London is simply not done.
But the Mitt misfire that most defies explanation was his uncharacteristically caddish comment about his wife’s passion for dressage and Rafalca, the horse that she co-owns, who is competing in the Olympics. Ann Romney embraced dressage as part of her therapy after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so there is an uplifting subtext to her passion for precision riding.
When the Republican candidate was asked in an NBC News interview whether he intended to watch Rafalca compete in London, Romney replied: “This is Ann’s sport. I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get a chance to see it. I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well.”
Even though the former Massachusetts governor is an avid horseman himself, the tenor of his remarks made it seem like he would much rather watch the Olympic finals in parcheesi.
Presumably, there was a political calculation to Romney galloping in the opposite direction at the mere mention of dressage. Just eight years ago John Kerry was pilloried as an out-of-touch elitist for going windsurfing. But it would have been much harder and quite unfair to criticize Romney for being a loyal husband and watching the initial dressage events with his wife. (Even though Rafalca is not competing until Tuesday, Romney might have announced that he would be actively cheering during the online livestream from Poland.) Instead, asked an obvious question, Romney gave an unfeeling answer that drew more attention to Ann’s horse than if the candidate himself had been photographed feeding carrots to Rafalca.
In truth, Romney is not politically embarrassed about being portrayed as rich. The fortune that he made at Bain Capital remains an integral part of his rationale for running for president. In Romney’s telling, his wealth shows that he understands how the free market works better than Obama does. If Romney’s business career were as checkered as that of a failed haberdasher named Harry Truman, then the only biographical argument for his candidacy would be his partially disowned record as a one-term governor of Massachusetts.
What Romney recoils from is being depicted as actually enjoying his money. Romney’s religious roots may be far from Puritan New England, but he strives to display a certain Cotton Mather-style grimness about his wealth and what it can buy. Romney can never embrace, at least not publicly, Sophie Tucker’s credo: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor--and, believe me, rich is better.” That is why the $55,000 car elevator that Romney is installing in his West Coast vacation house in La Jolla, Calif., is such a discordant detail. As are the six-digit (or maybe seven-digit) sums that the Romneys have been spending on dressage.
These days, presidential candidates, especially wealthy ones, are expected to ballyhoo their man-of-the-people tastes (think of patrician George H.W. Bush warbling over his love for pork rinds). What we have lost with this charade is the authentic brio that used to come with being rich. Franklin Roosevelt never pretended to prefer “brewskis” over the martinis that he mixed in a silver cocktail shaker. John Kennedy never ordered his wife to buy $39 designer knock-offs rather than the real thing from Oleg Cassini. Ross Perot, with his collection of Frederic Remington bronze statues and Norman Rockwell originals, may have been the last presidential candidate to appear to enjoy openly the perks of being a plutocrat.
Romney’s next stop, in Israel, raised different questions about his wealth and values. Accompanied by dozens of top Jewish fundraisers and super PAC impresarios like Sheldon Adelson, Romney engaged in a lovefest with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some of it was traditional bipartisan election-year posturing practiced by all non-incumbent candidates—who, after proclaiming that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem, somehow keep forgetting to move the American embassy out of Tel Aviv when they take office.
What mattered substantively were the strong wink-and-nod signals that Romney flashed suggesting that as president he would have no problems with Israel unilaterally attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Dan Senor, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, said unequivocally, “If Israel has to take action on its own … the governor would respect that decision.” Romney himself made the same point a bit more obliquely in a Sunday night address: “It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war. The opposite is true.”
With both his rhetoric and his decision to take on fire-breathing advisers like former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, Romney has decidedly put himself in the guns-blazing camp on foreign policy. At least for the moment. Even without invoking Nixon and China, it is a truism that the foreign-policy stances of presidents evolve once they are receiving morning national security briefings. At this time four years ago, Obama probably had no idea that he would become an ardent believer in aggressive warfare by unmanned drones once he was in the Oval Office.
As Romney begins the final leg of his international tour in Poland, the Republican contender has reason to hope that his London gaffe-in is now a distant memory. At least, Romney is blessed to live in an era when proclaiming that Poland is not a Communist country is an obvious statement of fact rather than a disastrous blunder. But far more worrisome is the quick-finger-on-the-trigger style that Romney displays each time he deals with a global question more explosive than the Olympics.