Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, succeeded in pulling off an impressive feat this week on his visit to the UK: he made George W Bush look well-spoken.
Mitt’s gaffes were multiple: he managed to talk about Number 10’s backside (quite funny, but probably just reflecting a difference in American and British English); he appeared to forget Ed Miliband’s name (quite embarrassing for someone claiming to be up-to-date on foreign affairs); and spoke undiplomatically about the Olympics the day before the successful opening ceremony, drawing mocking from David Cameron and Boris Johnson – with whom he should supposedly be ideologically in tune. He also boasted that he had had an apparently secret meeting with the head of British foreign intelligence. It would altogether be quite difficult to find any positives that came out of his trip.
While the famously blundering Mr Bush’s trips to the UK were touted as successes on his home turf, Republicans back in the US were forced to control the damage in the case of Mr Romney. Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, was reduced to pointing out that what matters is what American’s think of him, not the views of foreign citizens. In electoral terms, that is true. But it can’t help a candidate if his trip abroad makes him look weak on foreign policy, and totally incompetent as a statesman. (Except for some enlightened Republicans, who interpreted the gaffes as Britain’s failings.)
Mr Romney certainly showed himself to be no match for the silver-tongued Barack Obama when it comes to diplomacy and the establishment of cordial relations with allies. Mr Obama’s foreign policy has been much criticised recently, particularly because of the increase in drone strikes along the Afghan-Pakistan border, as well as elsewhere. But he at least knows how to act like a President, and the rapturous reception he received on his trip to the UK last year showed that he does it better than Mr Romney.
Of course, even if Mr Obama beats Mr Romney at style, does this episode tell us anything about the important questions of substance and policy positions? On this, we learned very little from Mr Romney’s trip. It may be that he did have some intense policy discussions with all the ‘Mr Leaders’ that he met, which were entirely overshadowed by his comic blunders. But I’m sceptical. A foreign trip as an opposition leader would not normally involve open policy discussion because the host knows he is not talking to someone who is readily able to change policy. If this were the case for Mr Romney, it would essentially be a symbolic occasion – and a trip to the UK should be an easy task for an American politician, who can simply talk up the “special relationship” (illusory or otherwise) and say how he is looking forward to the Olympics. That he failed to manage even this is quite amazing.
Over policy and conviction, Mr Romney would anyway be advised not to dwell too long, given his famous ability to flip his position when it seems politically expedient – so famous, in fact, that a song has been made about it, which has been viewed nearly 4 million times. We know what today’s Romney might say about healthcare in America (repeal and replace… er, with what?), or how to deal with unemployment (more laissez-faire policies will do the trick…), or what his position is on various other issues, such as gay marriage or gun control. But we also know that most of his positions are different to what they were when he was the Governor of Massachusetts.
Perhaps this is the real tragicomic element of the trip: Mr Romney may appear to regularly reposition himself to make sure he is saying what he believes his audience wants to hear. But maybe these Romneyshambles are finally what happens when Mitt-the-Twit speaks his mind.