Britain is an easy date. So how did Mitt Romney mess up so badly? | Jonathan Freedland
The Romneyshambles tells us plenty about one man’s lack of conviction and the dire state of today’s Republican party
So the big surprise in the opening ceremony is not what I expected. I thought Danny Boyle would set aside three minutes for a lavish video tribute to Willard Mitt Romney, thanking the Republican presidential nominee for doing what, until Thursday, neither David Cameron, Boris Johnson or Sebastian Coe had managed to do: silencing all but the grumpiest sceptics and uniting the British people in enthusiastic determination to enjoy the London Olympics.
Because we’re quite happy to whinge endlessly about security, transport and ticketing failures – but we’ll be damned if we’re going to hear it from some perfect-toothed American. Now we’ll get behind the Games just to spite him. For that, Coe & co will forever owe Romney a great debt.
The Romneyshambles saw the US politician lurch from one error to another, speaking of “looking out of the backside of 10 Downing Street”, disclosing what was meant to be a secret meeting with MI6 and, most damagingly, appearing to diss London 2012 on the very eve of the Games. The ineptitude was especially striking because this was supposed to be the uncomplicated leg of a Romney foreign tour that this weekend takes in Poland and Israel.
For an American politician, Britain is an easy date: just praise the country as a steadfast ally, mention Churchill a couple of times and we’ll roll over. Yet somehow Romney managed to provoke both the prime minister and the capital’s mayor – both fellow conservatives who should regard a Republican nominee as a kindred spirit – into public rebukes. That takes some doing. So what explains how an accomplished politician, with the resilience to have prevailed in a bruising primary campaign, could mess up so badly? The answer says a lot about Romney – and a fair bit about the dire state of today’s Republican party.
In the first category comes the observation that, despite having sought the presidency twice and served as a state governor, Romney is not really a politician at all – not in the Bill Clinton sense of someone who thinks, talks and breathes politically, constantly calculating the likely impact of both words and deeds. Instead Romney speaks and acts like the chief executive he was for so long, whether of private equity firm Bain Capital or the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics of 2002.
As we’ve learned in recent weeks, thanks to the likes of Barclays’ Bob Diamond or G4S’s Nick Buckles, corporate titans, so used to the nodding appreciation of yes men, can lack elementary tact and diplomacy, failing to weigh their words for tone, timing and likely reception. Technically, nothing in what Romney said about London 2012 was especially contentious – if, that is, he were merely the former CEO of the 2002 Games speaking privately to Coe a month ago. But for a man who seeks to be the lead partner in the US-UK alliance, speaking on the day before the Olympic flame was lit, it was a diplomatic disaster.
It’s surely CEO thinking too which has led Romney to refuse to release all his past tax returns, even though President Obama has published his in full. CEOs recoil from such personal transparency, while politicians know they will have to succumb eventually and so had better get it over with. Above all, their exorbitant pay means the elite chief executive class is habitually and unavoidably out of touch with everyone else. It is the Romney of the 1% who could smilingly tell an audience in hard-pressed Detroit that his wife has “a couple of Cadillacs”, beaming again today as his wife referred to the “horses”, plural, she owns (including one competing in the Olympic dressage event, providing a picture-perfect image of elitism for his opponents to feast on).
It seems that Romney is not a politician in his marrow, which may help explain the acrobatic extent of the flip-flops he has performed in his career. Hard to credit now that he attacked Teddy Kennedy from the left over gay rights during their 1994 senate race in Massachusetts and that, as governor of that traditionally liberal state in 2006, he enacted healthcare reform that was, if anything, more progressive than the Obamacare legislation he now opposes. By 2012, to win the support of the Republican right, Romney had turned 180 degrees, bowing to every aspect of their culturally conservative worldview.
Such drastic inconsistency is rare in someone with real political convictions. Which suggests that Romney might not have many of them. Perhaps he is no more than an accomplished corporate leader who aspires to the biggest CEO job on the planet – and knows that to get it he has to pretend to be a politician. Without resorting to excessive pop psychology, one even wonders if he suffers from a case of Al Gore syndrome: the son of a would-be president seeking to fulfil his father’s ambition rather than his own, chasing a job to which, ultimately, he might not be suited and which he might not even want.
But this is not just personal. Romney stumbled in London because he has little apparent interest in the world beyond America’s shores. This week he gave his first major foreign policy speech in nine months. Unlike both Obama and John McCain in 2008, his campaign has no senior foreign policy staffer. He had a spokesman on international affairs who left after just two weeks, reportedly because he was not allowed to talk to the media. When Romney has offered a view, it has been either confused, undiplomatic or both. Witness his branding of Russia – whose co-operation the US needs – as the US’s “No 1 geopolitical foe”.
In this, Romney is fully in step with the party he now leads. For today’s Republican party is characterised by a kind of bellicose ignorance towards the rest of the world, contemptuous of Obama’s attempts to show respect to foreigners, crudely aggressive towards those deemed the US’s enemies, uninterested in its friends. Take the response of Romney’s allies to the London debacle, his surrogates professing that “we’re not worried about overseas headlines”, while one media cheerleader dismissed Cameron as “limp-wristed” and Britain as “a second-rate, semi-degenerate nation”.
This, remember, is the party that slammed John Kerry for the crime of speaking French. Its antics, like those of the man it has chosen for the presidency, would be funny were the Republican party not aspiring to hold an office that is still mighty and, for the rest of the world, deadly serious.