Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mitt's Not-So-Excellent Adventure

Presidential politics requires equal parts style and substance. Ever since Bill Clinton answered the "boxers or briefs" question on MTV and blew his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, running for President has morphed from something that was homogenous and predictable (campaign rallies, basic stump speeches), into something that is far more interactive and personal - the 24/7 news cycle, multi-media platforms and sheer length of the campaign season requires candidates to deploy a diverse set of skills that are dissected and dissembled with alarming frequency. 

Traveling abroad as a Presidential candidate is a new phenomenon. When Bill Clinton ran against George H.W. Bush, he did not set foot outside the United States, but by 2008, Barack Obama was delivering a speech to more than 200,000 people in Germany and was photographed in a now famous picture on a helicopter with General David Petreaus in Iraq. In keeping with this new tradition, Mitt Romney decided he too would take a highly managed, low expectations foreign trip that would get the American people comfortable with the idea of him as the "leader of the free world." He chose three staunch American allies for his visit - England, Israel and Poland - framed the first stop around the Olympics (which he led here in the U.S. in 2002), the second around his commitment to Israeli security and the third, not sure, perhaps a thank you for hosting those black sites after 9/11.  

This political equivalent of spring training got off to an inauspicious start even before it started. The disgraced ex-CEO of Barclays had to pull out of a fundraiser Romney was holding in London because the optics of having the guy at the heart of the LIBOR scandal paying $50,000 to have dinner with the GOP nominee would have been, in a manner of speaking, awkward. Another fundraiser in Israel was moved because his staff did not realize it was scheduled right before the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'av, a fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple.  Poor form indeed. 

All of this would have been forgotten, or at least pushed to the back pages, if the roll out in England was not so awful.  First, a Romney advisor was quoted as stating that the Governor would better respect and appreciate England and the United States' shared "Anglo-Saxon heritage." Then, within hours of landing, Romney inserted his foot in his mouth during an interview with Brian Williams. When asked by Williams about the host country's Olympic preparation, Mitt questioned the security, calling some things he'd seen "disconcerting," an odd word choice in any event, but certainly not the type of description a visitor makes in a host's home. While this type of tsk tsking might be copacetic when you are the CEO of a corporation cleaning house at a company you have taken over, it is poor form when you are visiting our oldest ally. The blowback was immediate, with British Prime Minister David Cameron taking a not-so-subtle dig at the difference between security in one of the world's largest cities and an out of the way place like Salt Lake City. Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson name checked Romney at a public rally, dissing him before more than 60,000 cheering attendees. 

Things only got worse. Romney publicly confirmed a meeting with the British MI6 (their version of the CIA and something anyone on Romney's staff with a 101 level of knowledge about foreign policy should have instructed him to not disclose), and was called "worse than Palin" by a source quoted in the UK's Daily Mail. Other bons mot added that Mitt was a "total car crash" and was "devoid of charm, warmth, humour (sic) or humanity." (For more, check out: That Romney engendered so much bad media coverage in such a short amount of time is truly breathtaking.  And to cap things off, Romney couldn't pull the name of the opposition leader, Edward Milliband, out of his hat, referring to him only as "Mr. Leader." 

Of course, Israel was supposed to be the highlight of his trip. After all, he and Prime Minister Netanyahu have known each other since the mid-1970s and the Romney camp has moved heaven and earth to sound to the right of Obama on Iran (even though in actuality their differences are paper thin and Romney supports sanctions, something Obama has doggedly pursued). But again, the keystone cops running Mitt's campaign whiffed.  First, a photo of an Israeli flag being lowered in Romney's plane was tweeted out, then Romney decided to bar journalists from his closed door fundraiser, in violation of an agreement his campaign had that allows a "pool" reporter into such events (the reporter was ultimately allowed in, about which more in a minute). 

That fundraiser was newsworthy not just for the kerfuffle with the press, but because Sheldon Adelson, who, along with family members, essentially bankrolled the Super PAC that supported Newt Gingrich, was in attendance. In retrospect, had Adelson's presence and the pool snafu been the only bad news from this event, Romney's people would have taken it, because that pool reporter ended up with quotes from Romney that (1) misstated the disparity in GDP between Israelis and Palestinians and (2) suggested that difference was due to "culture and other things" between the two peoples. The reaction from the Palestinian side was immediate and negative.  The comments were labeled "racist" by a leading Palestinian official and worse than anything he'd ever heard an Israeli say about his people (never mind the implied stereotype that Romney made about Jews as … you know .. being good with money <wink> <wink>).  Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Romney canceled a meeting with the head of the opposition party before he flew off for Poland. 

The Polish leg was the the least newsworthy, but even there, the campaign managed to err.  When the press had the temerity to try and ask Romney, as he was leaving a memorial akin to our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a few questions about his remarks about Palestinians, a Romney press aide shot back to the reporter that he (the reporter) could, "kiss my ass, this is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect." The aide, Rick Gorka, then followed up by telling a reporter to "shove it." Classy. Of course, had Romney not played hide and seek with reporters since his ill-considered comments in England, perhaps there would have not been an attempt to buttonhole him as he was leaving the event, but the snub is of a piece with Romney's attitude toward the press - dismissive and rude, and only to be called upon when needed. During the primaries, Romney went weeks without a press conference, but when his tax returns cropped up as an issue, he raced to the cameras. Similarly, when questions about his separation from Bain bubbled to the surface recently, he appeared on multiple newscasts on the same day. Otherwise, he is as removed from the press as Dick Cheney was as VP, secluded in his undisclosed location.

If you're scoring at home, in the span of five days, Romney insulted the English people, got called out in front of a crowd of tens of thousands by the mayor of London, accidentally leaked details of a meeting a junior aide in the State Department would know not to reveal, received a zinger from Prime Minister Cameron, made an odd comment about whether he'd ever paid a tax rate below 13%, insulted the Palestinian people, was called a racist, had an aide tell the media to kiss his ass and "shove it," and was compared unfavorably to Sarah Palin. That, friends, is an unmitigated disaster. 

Add it all up and what you are left with is not just a ham handed roll out of Romney as a "world" leader, but something that Americans should consider when they vote in November. Being "leader of the free world" is not an empty thing, our President must balance many delicate and competing interests on the world stage, understand nuance, subtlety and that his words carry meaning for people on all sides of any particular issue. One cannot pander to Israelis by discussing their land as providential without insulting the people on the other side of that equation. When you are fricasseed in the English press and tagged "Mitt the Twit," the impact on our standing is affected if you lead us. That you don't know the respective GDPs of Israel and Palestine is fine if you keep that information to yourself, but if your staff is ignorant enough to not brief you on that information or worse, you try to wing it, people notice. And when your staff is dismissive and rude to reporters covering you, do not be at all surprised when they write negative stories about you. 

In short, what Mitt's Not So Excellent Adventure has shown us is that it is not a question of whether he is ready for prime time, but whether he's ready for mid-day. Forget the 3 A.M. call, Mitt has shown himself unprepared for a 3 P.M. call. The issues facing our country are far too consequential - in Europe, Afghanistan, the Middle East, China and elsewhere to entrust the Presidency to a rank amateur. 

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