Mitt Romney got about as positive a review from me as he would have a reasonable right to expect from anyone identified as an Obama-supporting Democrat. "Why Mitt Romney," March 26, 2012 ("My wife sees in some politicians a quality she calls 'Elvis.' Bill Clinton had 'Elvis.' Romney clearly does not. What I see in Romney is a bright, well informed, analytical, hard working, focused, pragmatic, problem-solving manager. A little touch of 'Elvis' would be comforting, but it doesn't trump the other qualities. . . . Some reports of his relationships as governor with the Massachusetts legislators are a little troublesome. [Michael Barbaro, "Legislators Recall Governor Who Didn't Mingle," New York Times, March 10, 2012, p. A1 (". . . Mr. Romney was an unfamiliar breed: a data-driven chief executive used to delivering unquestioned orders, . . . an emotionally remote figure who tended not to socialize . . .")]. . . . A president can probably get by with no 'Elvis,' but they all need a little 'LBJ.'").
Why do I care who the Republicans nominate? For the same reason I care who the vice presidential candidates are: because they could be president. It matters to America who lives in the White House. If it can't be the best man or woman America has to offer, second best is "the least worst."That's why I care.
OK, so I did have a bit of fun once I found out about Romney's six homes. "Homes: Weeks' Salisbury, Romney's Six; How Much Home is Enough?"
Of course I disagree with a great many of his positions on the issues. And having watched what that Republican-controlled House of Representatives did with a Democrat in the White House, I shudder to think of what would happen with a Republican president (regardless of how meritorious his positions on the issues).
But after some of my prior choices either never got into, or got in and then dropped out of, the Republican primary, it still seems to me that Romney was clearly the best of those left standing.
And so my position on Romney remained for the four months since that March blog entry -- until this past week.
To explain my concern it's necessary to go back to the last presidential campaign in 2008. "Experience" -- as a qualification for a presidential candidate -- became an issue, especially after Hillary Clinton made it such a big issue. It provided an occasion for me to reflect upon just what experience would be helpful for a president to have had. Nicholas Johnson, "Politics: Assessing Candidates' 'Experience,'", The Gazette, March 30, 2012, p. A9.
There’s little significant difference between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as lawyers who are well educated, thoughtful, widely informed and fully capable of formulating proposals on numerous topics. Both are articulate, though Obama has the charisma advantage. But the experience qualifying someone to be president requires a lot more than having been married to one, proposing good ideas or world travel. As someone who has served during the administrations of three presidents, I believe the presidency is one of the most complex administrative jobs imaginable. There’s no perfect, qualifying “experience.” But two things can help.One is experience at administering large institutions: a federal cabinet-level department, a state government, military branch, major university or corporation. The other is the understanding and rapport earned by having worked in institutions with which a president must relate: city, county and state government; the federal executive, legislative, judicial and administrative branches; international organizations and embassies; labor unions and Wall Street, among others.By these standards both Democrats and Sen. John McCain are unimpressive. None has served as mayor or governor; none has headed a cabinet department; none has helped administer the Pentagon or CIA; none has worked for international organizations, been ambassador to the United Nations or a foreign country; none has been a union officer or corporate CEO. None has headed delegations negotiating with foreign governments over trade agreements, release of hostages or treaties.
It didn't occur to me earlier to subject Romney to the same checklist as I did the three leaders in 2008. Now having done so, he comes off pretty well. He's had experience at management and administration (Governor of Massachusetts, the Salt Lake Olympics, Bain, and his current campaign). He's knowledgeable regarding state government and Wall Street. Where he's shy on my list are (1) his lack of experience as a member of Congress, the Senate, a Cabinet-level position, administrative agency, city or county government, Pentagon or CIA -- primarily Washington institutions.
(2) He's short on foreign relations experience, what I listed in describing candidates Clinton, McCain and Obama, above, as individuals, "none [of whom] has worked for international organizations, been ambassador to the United Nations or a foreign country; none has . . . headed delegations negotiating with foreign governments over trade agreements, release of hostages or treaties."
What concerns me after the events of this past week is more than his lack of experience in foreign affairs.
We have no training program for potential presidents. And almost no individual will have had the opportunity to amass experience in each of the areas I think useful. (However, in 2008 Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico came close, having been a governor, member of Congress, cabinet officer, a U.N. ambassador, and successful negotiator for the return of hostages. President George H.W. Bush had somewhat comparable prior experience.) Nor do I think having had all that experience is a necessary prerequisite to a successful presidency -- as illustrated by Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, all of whom had service in the U.S. Senate as their primary training.
So "on the job training" regarding something will probably be necessary for almost anyone serving as president -- including Romney. No problem there. But there is a difference between an absence of experience, a clean slate, along with an ability to learn, on the one hand, and Romney's gaffes and demonstrations of an instinct for insensitivity to foreign relations on the other.
Ashley Parker, "Romney’s Remarks on Olympics Cause Stir in London," New York Times, July 26, 2012.
"Mr. Romney’s choreographed visit here caused a diplomatic stir after his comments on the British Olympics preparations and whether Londoners would turn out to support the Games prompted a rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron and grabbed the attention of the news media.
“'There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,' Mr. Romney said in an interview with NBC on Wednesday.
"That brought a tart rejoinder from Mr. Cameron: 'We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.' The allusion was to Salt Lake City, which hosted the Games that Mr. Romney oversaw in 2002. . . .
"News of Mr. Romney’s remarks led The Times of London’s Web site at one point under the headline 'PM rebuffs Romney over readiness for Olympics,' and The Guardian’s Web site offered up a story titled 'Romney’s Olympics blunder stuns No. 10 and hands gift to Obama.'
"Mayor Boris Johnson even used the candidate’s words to rally thousands of Londoners at the end of the 69-day Olympic torch relay in Hyde Park, saying, 'There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready.' . . .
"He [Romney] also mentioned that he had met with the head of the MI6 foreign intelligence agency to discuss Syria and 'the hope for a more peaceful future for that country' — another comment the British press seized on as a gaffe because, they wrote, visiting dignitaries typically do not discuss their private meetings with the MI6 chief.
"In his original remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Romney also seemed to question the enthusiasm of the British public for the Games . . .."
Ashley Parker and Richard A. Oppel Jr., "Romney Trip Raises Sparks at a 2nd Stop," New York Times, July 31, 2012, p. A1 "Mr. Romney hit an applause line by calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital and agreeing to consider moving the United States Embassy there from Tel Aviv. But those policies would complicate America’s ability to act as a broker in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts." Editorial, "Mitt Romney Stumps in Israel," New York Times, July 31, 2012, p. A20.
"Mitt Romney offended Palestinian leaders on Monday by suggesting that cultural differences explain why the Israelis are so much more economically successful than Palestinians, thrusting himself again into a volatile issue while on his high-profile overseas trip.
"His remarks drew a pointed rebuke from the Palestinian leadership, which angrily noted that Mr. Romney had failed to mention the years of trade restrictions imposed by Israel. . . .
"[H]is remarks put him in the choppy crosscurrents of Israel-Palestinian affairs where American presidents have often served as mediators. . . .
"He added, 'As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. 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 correct figures: "Israel, in 2009, had a per capita gross domestic product of roughly $29,800, while, in 2008, the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita gross domestic product of $2,900, according to the Central Intelligence Agency." Editorial, "Mitt Romney Stumps in Israel," New York Times, July 31, 2012, p. A20.] . . .
"The remarks, which vastly understated the disparities between the societies, drew a swift rejoinder from Palestinian leaders. In an interview with The Associated Press, Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, called Mr. Romney’s remarks racist.
“'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,' Mr. Erekat said. 'It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.'
Mr. Romney did not speak to the deleterious impact of deep Israeli trade restrictions on the Palestinian economy, an effect widely described by international organizations including the World Bank, which recently reported that 'the government of Israel’s security restrictions continue to stymie investment.'”
"'Solidarnosc' [the trade union Solidarity] is in no way involved in the . . . initiative to invite Mitt Romney to Poland,' the 700,000-member union announced Monday.
"'Regretfully,' added Solidarnosc international department head Andrzej Adamczyk, 'we have learned . . . about Mitt Romney's support for the attacks against trade unions and labor rights.'" John Nichols, "Polish Labor Isn't Happy To See Romney," National Public Radio, July 31, 2012.
[Gregory J. Krieg and Emily Friedman, "Mitt Romney Trip an 'Embarrassing Disaster,' Obama Aide Says," ABCNews, July 31, 2012.]
The accompanying press representatives, irritated that there had been only one opportunity to question Romney during the three country tour, at which he had only addressed three questions, pressed with shouted questions at one point in Poland. Romney's aide responded, "Kiss my a**" and to one reporter, "Shove it." Not surprisingly, this did not mollify the press, thereby ending the tour on a similar note to that with which it had begun.
Romney has shown a form of insensitivity, or disconnectedness, from Americans on occasion. As I wrote in "Why Mitt Romney," March 26, 2012, "Nor do I find his seeming inability to speak the language of ordinary Americans disqualifying -- that his tie to NASCAR fans is that he knows a number of folks who own race teams, his appeal to UAW members is that his wife has two Cadillac cars, that his income from lecture fees is only a modest $300,000-plus. I find such unscripted comments almost charming in an odd sort of way. For more from this perspective, see Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, "The Retooled, Loose Romney, Guessing Voters’ Age and Ethnicity," New York Times, December 28, 2011, p. A1."
You may find Romney's insensitivity something between off-putting to disqualifying. Or you may see something almost charming in his efforts to reach out to others notwithstanding his occasional inability to do so -- owning a dancing horse, traveling with a dog strapped to the top of one of his cars, or outfitting his La Jolla garage with an elevator to stack the other cars.
But that's at home. When a president, or presidential candidate, is in another country he or she is America, and what might have been laughed off at home can become an international incident abroad. Or, as with Romney's comments about Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there, and what was taken as criticism of the Palestinians, something that may eliminate that president's ability to continue to play the role of peacemaker.
None of this changes my thought that Romney remains the best of the Republican candidates this year. And I am willing to cut him some slack for his inexperience in the nuances and sensitivity of foreign relations. But even for someone as inexperienced as Romney, my confidence in him was shaken by this series of unfortunate performances. That his instincts would have revealed him to be so lacking in sensitivity and just plain old common sense, I must say I do find troubling.