Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Romney in Poland:
A long, strange trip it’s been

TWO FOR TWO the wrong way on his not-quite-international tour, Mitt Romney took his campaign caravan to Poland on Monday for two days of visits with leaders. He got the optically rich photo op with one-time Solidarity icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa in Gdansk, and the Republican candidate huddled with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski — this before presenting a presumably major foreign-policy address.

But after the debacle in London and missteps in Israel, there was no glide path for the Republican nominee for the U.S. presidency. The autopilot couldn’t stay engaged. Even the seemingly easy trappings of ceremony and boilerplate praise could go awry. You never know what the boss might say off-script. Or what his staff might say.

Now that the Romney Mystery Tour is over, it’s clear that it was this predictable unpredictability that characterized most of that bewildering junket: an absence of magic, a doubling down on the campaign’s obsession with secrecy and script; and the inevitable unforced errors that arise when power and hubris collide.

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Seeking to advance a presidential persona, Romney met with Sikorski and, with generally anodyne comments, added fresh rhetorical cement to the cultural bridge between Poland and the United States. Taking the long view of a hypothetical commander-in chief, Romney thanked Sikorski for standing alongside America in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“On behalf of my countrymen I express deep appreciation for your willingness to fight with us, to stand with us, and to be our friends in time of crisis and military conflict,” Romney said. “As we face a world which seeks to determine a course towards greater freedom or more authoritarianism, we will continue to work together to be an example of the blessings of economic and political freedom and personal freedom, and to stand in our mutual efforts to secure peace for ourselves and for others.”

Summarizing his own tour through a historical lens, Romney noted how he’d started in England and ended in Poland, “the two bookends of NATO, history's greatest military alliance that has kept the peace for over half a century.”

“Our nations belong to the great fellowship of democracies. We speak the same language of freedom and justice,” he said.

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But that was part of the ceremonial part, and handled well enough. There was more of it when he met with Walesa, the father of the Solidarity movement, who seemed to give Romney an endorsement when he wished him “success.”

The current Solidarity directors think otherwise; Bloomberg Businessweek reported that, while Walesa apparently sought out Romney for the visit, “the current leadership of Solidarity distanced itself from the event and issued a statement critical of Romney. Solidarity characterized Romney as being hostile to unions and against labor rights. It emphasized that it had no role in organizing Romney's visit and expressed support for American labor organizations.”

One of the main reasons for Romney’s visit to Poland was purely to underscore his own bona fides as a man of economics. Romney knows Poland has been a true bright spot in the midst of a gloomy European economy, nurturing private-sector development, and in recent years effecting a balance of consumption and trade that’s put it in the catbird seat among European economies, and one very much in charge of its own future (unlike the gory that is Greece).

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SO HIS speech at the University of Warsaw library was expected to emphasize an old Romney talking point — free-market economies can rise and thrive when left to their own devices — and take the rhetorical high road, even while Romney overlooked the dissimilarities of Poland and the United States, from their histories to their demographics, from their historical roles in world economics to the various social and political forces that made them free-market economies in the first place.

He didn’t disappoint. The candidate, adopting some of the same phraseology in Warsaw as he’d done on the campaign trail in breadbasket America, said Poland’s economic vitality was anchored in a willingness to “stimulate innovation, attract investment, expand trade and live within its means,” instead of “heeding the false promise of a government-dominated economy.”

For Poland, he said, “[a] march toward economic liberty and smaller government has meant a march toward higher living standards, a strong military that defends liberty at home and abroad, and an important and growing role on the international stage.”

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Then back to the ceremonial. In a somber tour within a tour of a European nation whose wartime past still deeply resonates, Romney on Tuesday laid flowers at three memorials: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Monument to Ghetto Heroes, and the Memorial of the Warsaw Uprising, the 1944 Polish revolt against the Nazis.

But the U.S. press corps dutifully trailing Romney around every stop finally reacted to a frustrated access to the candidate that started early. American media, which Fox News’ Greta van Susteren said was being treated like the animals in “a modified petting zoo,” had had enough.

It all came to a head near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the Romney motorcade parked nearby in Pilsudski Square. As reporters dared to shout questions at Romney, peppering him about his gaffes earlier on the trip, Romney campaign mouthpiece Rick Gorka let fly with one of his own.

“Kiss my ass, this is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect,” he said.

Kiss my ass. A holy site. Show some respect. It may be the most ironically revealing phrasal juxtaposition since the one Merkin Muffley shouted in “Dr. Strangelove” (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”).

Gorka later apologized, saying the comment was “inappropriate” — ya think? — but what he said in a flash of anger distilled the mishaps, the ironies of the tour, and revealed the Romney campaign’s tendency for secrecy and control at all costs.

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THE ROMNEY juggernaut comes back to the United States with little to show for its recent trip abroad. Even in his two most optically promising opportunities, outside Jerusalem’s Old City and at the Warsaw library, Romney offered by-the-numbers bloviation, ritual hands-across-the-water solidarities that did little to advance understanding of his candidacy or his vision.

When you go abroad, you’re obligated to at least try to come back a little smarter, a little more worldly than when you left your own country. It’s debatable whether Romney did that on a whirlwind trek on which he met very few, if any, of the citizens of the countries he reflexively lavished with praise — on what Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz flat-out called “a fundraiser disguised as a foreign-policy trip.”

Because of the gaffe machine who would be president, Team Romney can be expected to spin the tour as not much more than a necessary of presidential politics — just one of those things you have to do, and, in that context, not especially significant. But it was important. The fact that so much of the trip went sideways in predictably unpredictable fashion speaks volumes about the Romney campaign. Even when he was on message, an inability to think things through revealed just how off-script Romney was even when reading from the teleprompter.

Howard LaFranchi observed in The Christian Science Monitor: “[… E]ven as Romney laid out his message of private enterprise free of government restraints, some experts in the countries he visited countered that the former venture capitalist glossed over the important role that government has played in their home states. In Israel, for example, some analysts noted that their country has universal health care with some of the features of the U.S. health-care law that Romney says he would reverse.”

For Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist and political observer, the similarities between Romney’s 2010 political manifesto, “No Apology,” and the campaign from which it originated, are inescapable:

Like the book, he wrote in The Daily Beast, the campaign “largely consists of content-less slogans and a disconnected set of opportunistic and false attacks on the President, coupled with an intention to reinstate the Bush neo-conmen who cratered America’s standing in the world as surely as their domestic counterparts collapsed the American economy. Beyond that there is emptiness—and repeated proof that Romney is without basic knowledge and out of his depth.”

Image credits: The Romneys: AFP/Janek Skarzynski.

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