All politics is local

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 31, 2012


In spite of all the criticism received by his comments on possible security failures in London’s Olympic Games, Mitt Romney scored a couple of domestic points in his recent foreign trip. By calling attention to his record as a Winter Olympic Games organizer and by visiting Israel to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy record, Romney courted a key electoral voting bloc in the U.S.  Though it remains to be seen if the costs of his diplomatic gaffe are greater than the benefits of his recent trip, Romney was certainly not concerned with the impression he would cause beyond the United States.


A common phrase in American politics, attributed to former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, summarizes the widespread perception that elections—and politics in general—has little to do with foreign policy. Precisely because all politics is local, politicians normally campaign on foreign countries exclusively to improve their standing domestically. Foreign affairs are always present in campaigns and occasionally become defining elements in an election.  But that happens only when the implications of foreign affairs policies can be directly associated to the daily lives of Americans. Thus, a candidate can score an electoral point by painting the other candidate as weak on foreign affairs only because Americans will understand such weakness as a proxy of troubling times ahead.


Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans are especially concerned with their national security. Protecting the country against new terrorist attacks is now a central objective of American presidents.  Because he is correctly perceived as rather dovish, President Obama has recently tried to step up his foreign affairs credentials. The fact that Osama bin Laden was killed under his watch has helped neutralized the Republicans’ attacks on Obama as a leader that can be bullied around by America’s enemies. Still, almost by definition, Democrats are perceived as weaker on foreign affairs than Republicans. By bringing the attention to the alleged security flaws surrounding London’s Olympic Games, Romney was able to score some points domestically.


True, the coordinated response by British authorities, Labour and Conservative alike, generated a diplomatic impasse with the Republican candidate.  British authorities wasted no time to ironically comment on Romney's Olympic Game organizing experience. By suggesting that Romney organized the Winter Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere—Utah—British officials signaled their dissatisfaction with Romney’s decision to score domestic political points with an issue of deep importance for the United Kingdom. After all, the U.K. has also been victimized by terrorist attacks.


Part of the problem for Romney had to do with the way in which he used his London trip to score points domestically. The Republican candidate would have been better off had he made his comments more diplomatically. It is understandable that he wants to draw comparisons between his personal attributes and President Obama’s. However, it is not very clever to do so by insulting your country’s strongest and most loyal historical ally. By not measuring his words and not carefully crafting his message, Romney paid a price internationally. Moreover, he allowed for the Obama campaign team to score its own domestic points at the expense of Romney’s gaffe.  The Obama camp wasted no time to point to the inconvenience of improvising unqualified criticisms in a friendly country’s own territory.  Thus, while Romney was able to bring attention to his own credentials as an Olympic Games organizer, he also had to withstand reproach for not acting presidential abroad.  The benefits for Romney probably outweigh the costs, but the Republican candidate did manage to get himself in trouble with some moderate voters for being so undiplomatic abroad.


In a visit to Israel, Romney also attempted to draw differences between his own foreign affairs priorities and President Obama’s. Given that Jewish American voters are a crucial voting bloc in Florida, a key battleground state, where Romney now has a marginal lead over Obama, the Republican candidate visited Israel to underline one of the most criticized aspects of Obama’s foreign affairs record.  It is no secret that the current president is far more distant than his predecessors from Israel.  Romney travelled to Israel to stress that point.  Naturally, since he will not be able to make any foreign affair policy change as a candidate, Romney’s statements and promises should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, he did not travel to outline a carefully constructed plan for the future security of Israel and peace in the Middle East. He only went there to draw differences with President Obama and cater to a voting bloc that has shown discontent with Obama’s foreign affairs record. If he wins Jewish Americans over to his camp, Romney can easily win in Florida in November.


The foreign press has had a field day condemning Romney’s undiplomatic, and probably largely unsubstantiated, comments. However, the Republican candidate achieved his objective of drawing differences with President Obama and highlighting areas that are important for Americans where he can be seen as closer to the median voter—or at least to a particular voting bloc—than President Obama has been during his first term.