- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
The Obama team is bragging that Romney’s recent foreign trip is a campaign bonanza for them. I am not so sure.
Romney’s comments certainly generated negative press coverage, but were they really gaffes of the sort that can come back to bite a candidate in a presidential campaign?
Here are the supposed gaffes:
- Romney said that there were concerns about whether London was fully prepared for the Olympics.
- Romney said that Israel’s strong economic performance relative to its Palestinian neighbors could be traced in part to cultural factors.
One way to measure a gaffe’s potency is to assess whether directly quoting the alleged gaffe would fit nicely in a television advertisement. In some cases, the ads virtually write themselves. If you see an ad in which President Obama is telling reporters “the private sector is doing fine,” you know it was paid for by Republicans. If you see an ad with President Obama telling small business owners “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” you know President Obama’s campaign didn’t run it.
By that standard, nothing Romney said on the trip would seem to make a good Obama attack ad. For starters, everything Romney said is true, even if some audiences did not want to hear it. More importantly, Romney’s statements weren’t insulting to actual voters, as candidate Obama’s were in 2008 when he dismissed the concerns of Pennsylvania voters who preferred his rival, Hillary Clinton, as folks who are “bitter, [and] they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them…”
Romney’s supposed gaffes from the trip fall well short of serious, but the controversy is not entirely inconsequential. The controversy matters because it means the trip was something of a missed, or at least a not-fully-realized opportunity. The trip was well-designed to draw attention to how President Obama’s approach to foreign policy has managed to offend close friends and partners, all to no good end. Whether it was the trivial insults of Obama’s tacky gifts to British counterparts, or the more consequential dismissal of missile defense commitments to the Poles, or the very serious mismanagement of U.S.-Israeli relations, Obama has repeatedly offended allies without accomplishing anything important for U.S. national interest in the process.
Romney’s trip could have drawn attention to those facts, indeed was probably designed to do so. The media controversy, artificially hyped by Obama partisans, was designed to distract attention from those facts. At least for the most recent news cycles, it seems that Obama’s designs trumped Romney’s.
As for the larger effects on the campaign, it is doubtful this trip will have much lasting impact and, if it does, it probably marginally helps Romney. The negative spin from the trip is mostly artificially media-driven, and the press will quickly move on to some other controversy, faux or genuine. However, some voters care very deeply about Israel and Poland, and Romney’s trip likely resonated with them more positively than the Obama campaign would like to admit. They may be the only ones who remember details from the trip and, if so, the details they remember may reinforce their inclination to cast a ballot for Romney.