Mitt Romney’s trip to Europe and Israel may not have been a complete disaster. Yet it was close enough to a risible calamity that the presumptive Republican candidate has to be glad it’s over — and dreaming of returning to American turf and topics less likely to blow up in his face like a loaded cigar.
How bad was it? Washington Post editorialist Eugene Robinson called the voyage the “Romney Tour ’12 — Gaffepalooza.” French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur described it as having lurched “from failures to polemics.” Outraged over his second-guessing of London’s Olympic preparations, U.K. tabloid the Sun dubbed Romney “Mitt the Twit.” And French daily Le Figaro — a militantly partisan supporter of conservatives no matter where they hail from — on Tuesday ran a blog post with the headline, “Is Mitt Romney a Loser?”
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Given all that, it’s probably fair to say the journey didn’t quite fulfill Romney’s hopes of solidifying his bona fides as an international statesman. Instead, it seemed that no one wanted to miss out on the “Kick-a-Mitt” media action taking place as his tour wound up on Tuesday. In fact, all that was missing from that coverage was another entertaining Gail Collins question about whether Romney’s dog might have been strapped to the roof of his plane.
In all fairness to Romney, his trip represented a no-win prospect from the outset. In making it, he had almost nothing to gain and seemingly much to lose. In crossing the Atlantic, Romney struck out into countries whose political and cultural views are starkly different from his own and whose citizens still generally view U.S. President Barack Obama as a hero. Romney also entered the vortex of a global media cyclone that’s just as ravenous for gotcha headlines as any he has braved in the U.S. And stumble he did, right from the get-go.
As detailed by our Swampland colleague Alex Altman here, Romney hit European ground with a thud by making comments suggesting that he didn’t feel London was prepared to host the Summer Olympics. He may have well declared, “Let the kicking begin.” Once the media tempest over that gaffe calmed, Romney found himself attacked for being “racist and out of touch” by Palestinian leaders following remarks he made in Israel. (The backstory of that flare-up is nicely spelled out by Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick here.)
Then on Tuesday, he sought to close his tour in Poland — and preen Reagan-era feathers — by meeting Solidarity leaders who helped topple communist rule. But Romney wound up being rebuked by the union’s current leadership. Far from the warm endorsement he got from iconic Solidarity co-founder Lech Walesa, Solidarity itself issued a statement criticizing Romney and the GOP for their offensive against collective-bargaining agreements in several states that it called “attacks on trade unions and employees’ rights.” So much for being buddies with the world’s most avidly anticommunist, pro-market, pro-American labor union.
And just when things didn’t look like they could get worse for Team Romney on that final Polish leg — they did. Questioned by the press pool about the controversies that have plagued the trip, Romney’s traveling press secretary Rick Gorka reportedly shot back with orders to “kiss my ass … Show some respect.” Gorka was then said to have instructed a journalist to “shove it.”
Maybe the trip was a disaster after all.
U.S. political expert and professor emeritus at Paris Sorbonne University, André Kaspi, notes that trips abroad by American presidential candidates have become as routine as they are ultimately futile in affecting the outcome of races. “These trips ultimately change nothing in the thinking of Europeans greeting these candidates, nor — more importantly — for American voters who cast ballots based almost exclusively on domestic issue,” says Kaspi, whose French book Barack Obama: The Great Disillusion will be published in September.
“In going to London, Romney sought to resurrect his own successes with the Salt Lake City Games — a way of managing his own storytelling,” Kaspi continues. “In going to Israel and Poland, he sought to make a statement to American Jews and Catholics that he’s close to people and topics important to them. The potential of any of that actually altering presidential voting in November was so small to begin with that any damage done from this trip is equally insignificant.”
So too is the terrible impression Romney made in European minds during the trip. Kaspi says Romney likely struck Europeans who paid attention to his visit as a successful and astonishingly rich businessman with little concern for less affluent people. The other commonly known parts of his bio: that Romney’s a devout member of the Mormon faith who once banged on doors as a missionary in France.
“Neither of those things are viewed positively here,” Kaspi says. “Neither is the view that his policies will basically revisit those of the last Bush Administration — which is still considered in the darkest of terms here. So Romney starts off with a negative reputation in European eyes, which view Obama in a very positive manner anyway. How can gaffes make all that worse for Romney — and how are his chances undermined if they are? Europeans don’t count in American elections!”