- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
It’s been a remarkable month for viral videos, hasn’t it? There’s hardly anything I could add to the blizzard of criticism provoked by the video of Mitt Romney’s candid and callous remarks to a group of fat cat Republic donors, so I won’t pile on. Well….not very much.
Here’s what struck me about this latest incident. Romney is not a stupid man, whatever one might think of his political views or his awkward public persona. He is also a man who has been running for president for more than five years. He has done nothing else in that entire period: He was already wealthy and didn’t have to work, and his children were grown. He could spend most of his time mastering the issues, and he could have invited virtually anyone he wished to come in and brief him on any topic he thought was important for a future president to understand. He’s had more than enough time to learn the ins and outs of our economic situation, to study the pros and cons of alternative approaches to health care, infrastructure development, and the like, and to bone up on tricky foreign policy issues like relations with China and Russia, counter-terrorism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, there is simply no excuse for his not having clear and defensible positions on these vital issues, and more. It’s called doing one’s homework.
There’s also no excuse for Romney not knowing how to talk about these issues in a way that conveys a sophisticated awareness of where the minefields are. Somebody who really understands our tax system and the nature of government entitlements doesn’t tell donors that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes and imply they are just mooching off of everyone else. Someone with a halfway decent grasp of what foreign policy involves doesn’t land in London and insult a long-standing ally, and then fly off to Israel and offer ignorant remarks about the supposed deficiencies of Arab culture. And even if he truly believes that a two-state solution is no longer possible — a view that may well be correct — he would know that presidential aspirants can’t say that and then suggest that we just cross our fingers and hope for a miracle down the road. Finally, if Romney is such a great manager and judge of talent, why-oh-why has he saddled his campaign with all those neoconservative retreads? Given their track record, that’s like hiring Charlie Sheen to handle outreach to women or putting Bernie Madoff in charge of campaign finances.
Like all of us, politicians sometimes utter ill-chosen phrases or get surprised by an unexpected question. But given how much uninterrupted time he has had to get ready for this election, the frequency of Romney’s gaffes is revealing. They don’t just expose the ignorance of a man who’s spent his entire adult life protected in the bubble wrap of wealth, privilege, and intellectual conformity. What they reveal is either 1) enormous and inexplicable ignorance, 2) a smug and cynical willingness to say whatever he thinks each audience wants to hear, or 3) the iron grip of a world-view that is impervious to evidence.
I’m not sure which possibility scares me more, but it does seem less likely that we’re going to find out which one it really is. There’s some consolation in that. And for foreign policy wonks, there may even be a bigger silver lining in the death spiral that Romney’s campaign may now be entering. The GOP used to be pretty good at foreign policy, back when realists ran the show. If Romney goes down to defeat despite all the factors in his favor, perhaps the GOP will come to its senses and abandon the extremist positions (and the extremists) that have dominated its ranks since the early 1990s. A development like that might even make former Republicans like me think about returning to the fold.