Romney's Whiff-a-Thon: He and His Advisers Are on Different Pages

Michael Hirsh

One would think that Dan Senor, of all of Mitt Romney’s advisers, would be the last one to get crossways with the candidate. Senor, like Romney, is a Harvard M.B.A. and a successful Wall Streeter who has nimbly straddled the world of finance and politics, and whose somewhat hawkish, neoconservative views of the world are largely in accord with Romney’s.

And Senor, the former spokesman for President Bush’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, has been advising Romney for the better part of a year, at least informally, especially on Israel and Iran. Indeed, according to a senior Romney aide, Senor has been instrumental in pressing Romney to make President Obama’s alleged mistakes and weakness over Iran’s nuclear program a centerpiece of the candidate’s foreign-policy critique. 

So it is all the more striking that, after a gaffe-replete London trip that featured at least one big embarrassing mistake by another adviser, Romney and Senor still don’t seem to be entirely on the same page on Iran. Senor, briefing reporters on Sunday, indicated that Romney would back a unilateral strike on Iran by Israel. "If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability the governor would respect that decision," he said. But Romney himself, speaking later to ABC News, appeared to pull back slightly from Senor’s characterization. “I think I’ll use my own terms in that regard and that is that I recognize the right of Israel to defend itself,” Romney said. Not a huge difference, but enough to be noticed.

Senor, responding to a request for comment by email, told National Journal that there was no real difference between his and Romney’s statements, and that the matter had been blown out of proportion by a “wire reporter.” Romney "effectively repeated my language in his speech,” Senor said.


Earlier this month, another adviser, Rich Williamson, building on Romney’s hard-line description of Russia as America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” mistakenly referred to Russia as the “Soviet Union.”

The question is: Why does this keep happening in Romneyland? Is it evidence of a chronically disorganized campaign – or, more likely, do these mishaps reveal a candidate whose views keep evolving and are simply hard to pin down, even for his aides? Even Eric Fehrnstrom, one of Romney's longest-serving and most loyal aides, seems to be having trouble keeping up with Morphing Mitt. After the Supreme Court upheld Obama’s health care plan in early July, Fehrnstrom flatly told MSNBC that it was "correct" to say that Romney doesn't believe the individual mandate penalty is a "tax." But a few days later, Romney told CBS that because the Supreme Court majority had concluded the penalty was a tax, he himself had to call it a tax, too. "They have spoken," he said. "Therefore it is a tax." (Even though Romney plainly said he disagreed with the majority on just about everything else.)

What happened there? It was no accident that, in the days between Fehrnstrom’s comments and Romney’s, the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill laid out the new Republican orthodoxy on the Supreme Court decision. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and other Republicans were all accusing Obama of, in effect, imposing a middle-class tax increase with 'Obamacare.' So Romney had to choose, in effect, between Fehrnstrom and his party’s chief ideologues. Not a tough choice for a candidate who spent most of the primary season catching up with a party base that was vastly further to the right than it had been as recently as his 2008 campaign.

And then there was the gaffe that augured Romney’s whiff-a-thon in London, when an anonymous adviser told the Guardian newspaper that Romney considered lt the U.S.-British relationship special because "we are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage.”

Though Romney later disavowed the comment, it seemed to accurately reflect what, for Romney, is a culture-centered view of the world. In remarks on Monday at a fundraiser in Israel, he again invoked a favorite, formative book, The Wealth And Poverty of Nations, by retired Harvard scholar David Landes. Romney said that Landes’s “lifelong analysis” of civilization showed that “culture makes all the difference.” Then he repeated himself: “Culture makes all the difference.” Romney was referring to what he described as the “stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and between other neighboring nations such as the United States and Mexico. 

Once again, as he did in London, Romney seemed to have succeeded in insulting far more people than he actually won over, with the negative headlines dominating. "It is a racist statement, and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Interestingly, even David Landes doesn’t appear to agree with his most noted reader. Though Landes is disabled by a stroke and could not come to the phone, his daughter Alison noted in an interview with National Journal that her father’s book is “more nuanced” than simply a statement of the superiority of culture (and Landes focuses mainly on European history, anyway). At one point in his book, Landes also discusses the importance of geography, which he says “tells an unpleasant truth, namely, that nature like life is unfair, unequal in its favors; further, that nature's unfairness is not easily remedied.”

As the Palestinians would tell you.