Open Zion

06.11.12

Romney's Israel Brand

When I joined the strategy consulting firm Monitor (now Monitor Group) in the spring of 1992, the first party its directors, my new colleagues, invited me to was at Mitt Romney's mansion in Belmont. Romney was at the time still with Bain Capital; Monitor’s founders had been Bainies before launching out on their own and remained his friends. Romney’s political ambitions were already clear. The party, in fact, turned out to be a fundraiser for Romney’s friend—a member of Harvard Business School’s remarkable Mormon community—who was planning a run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Utah.

As my new Monitor colleagues whipped out their check-books, writing in numbers that elicited broad smiles from Romney and his special guest (Monitor was "kicking McKinsey's butt" at the old AT&T at the time, which was spending tens of millions on strategy consultants on its road to eventual oblivion), I cautiously took out my check-book, too. I wrote in $50, in something like the spirit with which Orwell shot the elephant, and mumbled some apology about being “new.” The smiles came anyway. I did not mention I was a progressive Democrat, needless to say, which would have been a little like admitting you were a Reagan Republican at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.

Let’s just say Romney is now returning the favor, though he is not as stingy about it as I was. Jews are still polling 2 to 1 for Obama, but here I am, back in Jerusalem, and Romney has his check-book out. His foreign policy spokesman is promising that President Romney will come to Israel before visiting anyother country, improve relations with Netanyahu, whom Obama tried to humiliate, arm Syrian “moderates,” and credibly threaten military action against Iran (“One of the results of his foreign policy is that our friends and allies, including Great Britain, Israel, and others, have not had their interests taken into account”). Thanks, Mitt.

Of course the only way Romney’s tough talk can seem plausible is to ignore the big thing the Obama administration has not ignored. Indeed, the very week the Romney campaign decided to reassure us about his devotion to Israel, Netanyahu’s government announced 850 new housing units to be built on the West Bank, over the State Department’s objections.

The Romney campaign is saying pretty much what the iconic Reagan said: the fight is international—in this case against “jihad” and “foes” like Russia—and Israel is America’s power-forward in the Middle East. Okay, Israel has a bad addiction, to settlements, but why demoralize us? Only professors, Oprah, and “the liberal media” think settlements are reason enough to—how did Romney out it?—“throw Israel under a bus.” Romney’s spent real face-time with Sheldon Adelson in recent weeks, whose capacity to write zeros after the number 5 is somewhat greater than mine. Oh, when Reagan took office there were about 10,000 settlers, 100,000 when he left office. Again, Mitt, thanks.

Then again, it is probably wrong to conclude that Romney’s campaign has been bought, at least not in the ordinary way I was. "Corporations are people," Romney famously blurted out, but what he really meant is that people—certainly politicians—are corporations: they prove their virtue by succeeding in worldly affairs, and the most important way to succeed (or so any Bain, McKinsey, Monitor, etc. consultant will teach you) is to manage your brand into viable market spaces others refuse to occupy.

And the space “Israel” gives Romney is not really Jewish voters but something more profitable. “Israel” conjures the vengeful and righteous Jesus of Revelations: evangelicals love us to death. Israel is also catnip for ethnic Democrats, independents, Joe-the-plumber (who actually visited Sderot), listeners to shock-jock radio, people who may well swing the election in battleground states; people who think in terms of “strength” and “friends” and “interests” and hunger for a real man in the White House, not the feckless Obama (since Jeane Kirkpatrick, “feckless” is the preferred neocon epithet).

We have, of course, seen this market gambit before, with Reagan, the actor, promising to save us from the feckless Carter (an Annapolis graduate and naval officer, remember), and AWOL-for-a-year Bush, having brought the country into a disastrous war, trafficking in distorted images of John Kerry’s swift-boat.

Some in the “liberal media” will call this gambit of Romney’s an “ideology,” but I suspect he is too shrewd a brand-manager to assume anything this fancy. He knows that bravado just works with certain kinds of people, his “target segment,” as the business school put it. Indeed, one of the greatest political strategists of all time could not have put things more bluntly:

Why of course the people don't want war. [But] it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Dick Morris? Actually, Hermann Goering. As the man said, it works in every country.