Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at 10 Downing Street in London, on July 26, 2012. Photo By David Bebber/ AFP/ Getty Images.
Mitt Romney’s folks were feeling pretty sure of themselves Tuesday evening as their man embarked on his overseas trip. No matter that the Obama campaign was deriding the trip as content-free, all photo-op and fundraising, and devoid of policy specifics. Romney had just delivered a stinging put-down of the president’s handling of foreign affairs before the VFW convention in Las Vegas, and that was all the policy meat he planned or needed to serve.
“This election will be decided on the economy,” senior foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson told me. “All he has to do is check the box, as commander in chief.”
Williamson was right. President Obama may enjoy a commanding lead over Mitt Romney as a “good commander in chief,” by 45-35 in the latest NBC-WSJ poll. He leads as the candidate who will “best handle foreign policy” by 47 to 32. But when it comes to what will drive most voters’ choices, every pre-election survey makes clear: it’s the economy and jobs.
The fact is, a challenger who lacks foreign policy credentials doesn’t have to match a sitting president’s international battle scars. All he or she has to do is appear plausible to the voters as a potential commander in chief.
It may seem tempting to reach for that image with a high-flying foreign trip, meeting with world leaders to sagely discuss the challenges ahead. So I went looking for examples.
But it turns out that the only candidate to do that in the last 40 years was Barack Obama in 2008.
Jimmy Carter didn’t travel overseas during his race against President Gerald Ford in 1976. Nor did Ronald Reagan, challenging President Carter in 1980. Nor did Michael Dukakis against then-Vice President George Bush in 1988. Nor Bill Clinton challenging president George H.W. Bush in 1992. Nor George W. Bush, facing off against Vice President Al Gore in 2000.
Romney’s stop on friendly British soil — to meet with America’s longtime allies and bask in the pomp of the Olympics — should have been the easy part. Instead, he seemed to careen from one unforced error to another. Particularly irksome to his British hosts was his questioning whether London was ready to pull off a successful Olympic Games. The baying British press had a field day. “Mitt the Twit” screamed the headline in the Sun. The Times headline dubbed him “Nowhere Man.”
Most American voters will never see those, of course. But if Romney wants this to burnish his image as a plausible commander in chief, he’ll now have to perform flawlessly on the more politically-charged stops ahead — Israel this weekend, and Poland Monday and Tuesday. It’s a rocky, mine-strewn world out there. Maybe his predecessors in the presidential-challenger business knew something after all.