Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
As foreign policy tours go, Mitt Romney’s should have been the equivalent of jumping into a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.
He wasn't visiting troops on a battlefield, or a region rocked by natural disaster. Little should have been politically dangerous or controversial about visits to Great Britain and Poland. Israel, while fraught, comes with a script for seasoned Republican politicians; just don’t say anything more than you need to.
That was the problem: At almost every turn on what should have been a safe, easy trip, Mitt Romney said more than he needed to.
It started last Wednesday in London, when Romney went public with misgivings about the city’s preparation for hosting the Olympics. Just two days before the games began, he told NBC Nightly News that it was “hard to know just how well it will turn out.”
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” he said.
Romney was less than 24 hours into his trip. Imagine showing up to a dinner party and telling all the guests, with the host in earshot, that you weren’t sure the food would be ready on time, or very good at all. That’s how it sounded to the British public, politicians, and press.
“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said, implicitly suggesting that Romney’s experience leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City did not qualify him to comment on London’s preparedness. “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
The British paper The Telegraph was even less forgiving. “Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive,” read the opening to a commentary entitled “If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care.”
Ouch. The early reviews of Romney’s foreign tour were rough. And he hadn’t even gotten to the Middle East yet.
Five days after offending the British, Mitt Romney ate breakfast with about 40 wealthy donors at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who in June gave $10 million to the pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future, was among them.
The Republican Party has branded itself the best friend Israel could have, pledging the United States’ unwavering support once their man is in the White House. It’s an integral plank of the party’s foreign policy/national security platform, as well as their pitch to conservative Jewish voters and deep-pocketed donors like Adelson.
So this was arguably the most important stop and most serious test of Romney’s international swing. How did he handle it on Monday? He came off as a friend to Israel, sure; but let’s just say there was no “great leap forward” in the peace process.
"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality," the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who ate breakfast at the luxurious King David Hotel.
Romney said some economic histories have theorized that "culture makes all the difference."
"And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things," Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the "hand of providence." He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States.
It’s moments like these when that unattributed “Anglo-Saxon heritage” quote from last week—which was never properly confirmed—doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
In other words, this was bad. If the British were offended at the suggestion they weren’t ready to host the Olympics, imagine how Palestinians reacted to an American politician’s suggestion that some cultural deficiency was to blame for their troubles.
“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.
"It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people," Erekat added. "He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority."
For Romney this was, if not a dumb thing to say, a dumb way to say it. Not only was the unprompted comparison unnecessarily offensive to Palestinians; Romney said, essentially, that GDP per capita (read: money) correlates directly with “culture.”
There’s a caricature of the GOP’s economic philosophy that goes, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” As much as Mitt Romney would distance himself from the oversimplification, some version of it was couched in his remarks about Palestinians on Monday. It didn’t stop him from raising over $1 million from those 40 wealthy donors in Jerusalem.
At least the last leg of Romney’s trip was somewhat boring. He received a warm welcome from former Polish President Lech Walesa, who co-founded Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soveit bloc, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Walesa effectively endorses Romney, saying on Monday, “I wish you to be successful.” But then Solidarity, the union co-founded by Walesa, distanced itself from Walesa’s praise of Romney, alleging that Romney had not been a friend to American workers and therefore could not have the union’s support.
Regretfully, we were informed by our friends from the American headquarters of (trade union federation) AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million employees … that Mitt Romney supported attacks on trade unions and employees’ rights.
Solidarity was not involved in organizing Romney’s meeting with Wałęsa and did not invite him to visit Poland.
Walesa himself undercut his kind words too. Later that same day, during an appearance on a Polish news channel, Walesa said, amid otherwise effusive praise, that “Charisma is something Romney ‘doesn’t really yet have.’”
Evidence of Walesa’s complaint was on display throughout most of Romney’s first big overseas adventure as the presumptive Republican nominee. Through it all, the campaign kept the press at bay.
Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren said in a blog post that “There has been no press access to Governor Romney since we landed in Poland,” and compared the press to a “modified petting zoo” of the campaign’s keeping.
MSNBC points out that Romney didn’t take questions from his own press corps in London, and only answered questions from the British press. That trend was expected to continue in Poland, as “a Romney press secretary told reporters that the GOP candidate would likely not answer questions from the press. That meant on the six-day trip, he would have taken precisely three questions from the traveling press corps.”
Three questions in six days. Given how Romney has answered questions on the trip—even ones nobody asked—can you blame him?