Elections 2012

Mitt, Are You Sure This Trip Was a Good Idea?

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Even before he gets to Israel this weekend, Mitt Romney has discovered the perils of trying to look like a statesman overseas while running for office at home.

In London, the easy part of the trip, Romney Inc.'s message control broke down thoroughly. The candidate managed to insult the host country for its handling of the Olympics, and get told by Prime Minister Cameron that these were games in a real city, not that second-class event Romney ran in a "nowhere." That was after a Romney adviser suggested to the Telegraph's Washington correspondent that, unlike Romney, Barack Obama doesn't appreciate Britain and America's shared "Anglo-Saxon heritage." Beside the "racial insensitivity" that the Telegraph understatedly noted, this wasn't a smart prelude to an Israel visit. Americans with funny names like Kagan or Shapira might also feel that Anglo-Saxon heritage shouldn't be a requirement for office.

Already in the planning stage, Romney showed he does not know how to be a perfect stranger. It seems no one on his staff checked a Jewish calendar and noticed that he'd spending most of his time in Israel on the fast day of Tisha B'Av. His big fundraising event was originally scheduled for Sunday evening—just after the fast ends, but close enough to spark a public outcry that surprised the campaign, according to a Republican strategist. The event was moved to Monday morning.

Just a detail, perhaps, but it underlines the clumsiness of Romney's decision to come to Israel. Yes, he'll get an effusive welcome from old friend Benjamin Netanyahu. But the risks of the visit are much greater than the potential profit. There are few voters he can actually influence. There are many pitfalls. Etiquette requires that a candidate avoid off-shoring: he's not supposed to criticize his own government while abroad or to foreign media. Keeping that rule with the Israeli press will only be harder than it was with the British, since Romney's point in coming is to spotlight his claim that Obama has mishandled relations with Jerusalem.

Facing slow pitches from Ha'aretz's Ari Shavit before his arrival, Romney avoided explicit jabs at Obama. But when he said that any discussion of whether Israel should build settlements would lead him to "showing a distance between me and the president," he implied he'd drop American opposition to settlement, a stance that stretches back to 1967. This might satisfy hawkish Jewish voters already on his side. In other capitals, it will raise concern about the potential president as an elephant in a china shop.

Romney also told Shavit that U.S.-Israel disagreements should only be expressed in private. That's not just criticism of Obama; it's a jibe at every Republican president since Israel was founded, including GOP semi-deity Ronald Reagan. Outside of AIPAC, it should worry American voters: Romney has promised that he will tie his right hand behind his back before dealing with Israeli actions that could hurt U.S. interests.

If he answers harder questions from the press here, how will Romney define what Obama has done wrong on Israel? Does he disagree with funding Iron Dome or winning Israeli acceptance to the OECD? Presumably not. He won't criticize Obama's decision to veto a Security Council resolution against settlement, though criticism might be in order. If he implies, just slightly, that Washington should let the leash off and allow Netanyahu go ahead now with an attack on Iran despite the dangers of regional war, American voters have reason to worry.

And where's the potential benefit of the visit? Pollster Jim Gerstein, an expert on the Jewish vote, noted in a J Street conference call this week that in the 2010 elections, just 7 percent of U.S. Jews listed Israel as one of their top two voting issues. That figure is consistent with previous and current polling. Jews do want a candidate to show a basic minimum of support for Israel, Gerstein argued, but Obama's high approval rating among Jews—14 percent above the general electorate—shows he's met the threshold. The swing states with the highest proportion of Jewish voters are Pennsylvania and Florida—with 4 percent each. As Gerstein said, a quarter of the Jews in those states would have to switch sides for Romney to gain 1 percent in the overall total.

So perhaps Romney is pursuing the conservative evangelical vote? That would have made sense in the Republican primaries. In the general election, those aren't swing votes either.

So the best Romney can do in Jerusalem is smile, evade questions, and try to avoid damage. Candidates often get stuck in such situations. Smart ones don't fly thousands of miles to create them.