Presidential Debate Live Coverage: Will Mitt Take a Real Position?
The answer is: probably not. Here’s why…
The Republican Party is divided among three groups with starkly different world views when it comes to foreign policy.
First, you have Bush-Cheney neocons. These are folks, like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, who believe America has a moral obligation to spread its awesomeness throughout the world. A lot of people would agree in principle, but not in practical application. That’s because neocons aren’t really concerned with the “how” or the cost of their democracy promotion efforts. So while they built an internal consensus in the Bush administration, they’ve been discredited for doing things like invading Iraq for fake reasons without an exit plan, and declaring “mission accomplished” a decade early. When you hear chicken hawk talk like, “Obama quit on Afghanistan by setting a withdrawal date,” or, “We should have boots on the ground in Libya,” that’s these guys. But Romney can’t completely embrace them because, well, most of the public thinks they’re nuts (they are in fact quite impractical).
Second, you have the Ron Paul isolationists. These are folks who think America is overextended in the world and we should just build a big fence across the border with Mexico and tend to our own darn problems. Compelling to many, until we take half of one second to realize that Earth doesn’t quite work that way in the 21st century. You’re hearing their influences when you catch phrases like, “It’s time to do nation building here at home,” and, “China is manipulating their currency so we should jack up tariffs on their exports.” (Nevermind that a trade war with China would completely end the American middle class standard of living. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.) Sometimes conservative isolationism makes for good political rally red meat, but Mitt Romney could never actually govern with an isolationist agenda of cutting off trade and ignoring international terrorism. Not many people know what Romney really believes, but I’m sure that’s not it.
Third, you have Reagan era realists. These are the folks who don’t care so much about ideology as much as they care about America being maximally powerful. If making a deal with a dictator makes America powerful, then do it. If ignoring a genocide in Darfur saves money, then do it. If the UN slows us down, then stop doing it. This is the Romney of “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth to find Bin Laden.” Realism was arguably useful in decades past – before an Egyptian in the desert with $1000 annual income had a smart phone that told him everything the US was doing. Now, instead, we need to have some consistency in our foreign policy because it’s pretty easy to figure out if America is walking the walk or just talking the talk. Since Romney has been about as consistent as Arnold Schwarzenegger has been faithful to his marraige vows, realism is probably Mitt’s general approach to the world. But, from a political perspective, realism is hard to explain because it is values-devoid. Mitt would never be able to stand up tonight and say, “Forget about the Arab Spring, it’s a waste of money to try building democracy for those countries, so just wait until the military takes over and make a deal to get cheap oil.”
The result for Romney’s campaign is a completely muddled foreign policy with an internal battle between neocons who still control resources (Rove’s superpacs), outdated Cold War realist policy wonks, and political hacks trying to appease anti-trade isolationists in the midwest battleground in a desperate attempt to keep Ohio on the map for the king of outsourcing. This is why Mitt repeatedly does head-scratching things like attacking the President for setting a timeline to leave Afghanistan, while agreeing with that same timeline when pressed for alternative.
Obama can be very effective tonight if he gets Romney to do less criticizing and more explaining his own positions. Because no matter what Mitt says, it’ll anger at least one of these groups. We’ll be tracking Mitt’s vain attempt to keep the Republican base together by lobbing repeated attacks at Obama. Obama needs to arm himself with a simple phrase like, “Governor, you can’t be the leader of the free world if all you do is attack and never lay out a vision.” Check in again when the debate starts.
Michael Moschella is the Political Director at the Truman National Security Project