The man, the Mitt, and the half-million-dollar albatross

There is a myth that Mitt Romney is somehow a weak candidate, can't get his tone right, will fold under pressure from the rabid right and the posturing of cardboard panderers like Rick Perry. But watch his progress, his steady, measured campaign, his ability to raise money, and note that while the press spins up the buzz-worthy stories of the day, he soldiers on in a way that has essentially guaranteed that the Republican presidential contest will be "Mitt Romney vs. someone else."

That may have the far right licking its chops, but trust me, in the White House Romney's measured march forward is a source of unease. What they fear -- even taking fully into account Romney's sometimes robotic (but improving) delivery and his coolness (one wag I know framed the contest between him and Barack Obama as "the refrigerator versus the icebox") -- is his solid professionalism.

You could see that professionalism at work in Romney's address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. And since we spent a little time yesterday breaking down the remarks of Governor Perry, it is only fair that we perform the same public service with regard to the speech of Mitt Romney. The White House should be doing the same thing. Because Romney's speech was both a template for his campaign and a clear sign of what a formidable opponent he may be. He gets it. And pair him with a candidate who plugs him in to the right and a key state -- Marco Rubio, perhaps -- and this man could make 2012 much more difficult for Obama than all the hyperventilating Perry promoters might suggest.

Here are the words of Romney and what they really mean:

  • "You know better than most that the world is still infected with purveyors of hate and oppression. Some are jihadists, some are communists, and some are simply tyrants who clothe themselves in any convenient political manifesto. And so once again, American heroes are called upon to defend liberty."

OK, so this is just scare tactics and pandering. It's contemptible and simple-minded, and the evocation of the communist threat is downright quaint. But the bad news for all of you out there in foreign-policy land is that scare tactics and pandering work.

  • "Twenty-five million Americans are out of work, or have stopped looking, or have only part-time jobs but want full-time work. Home values have dropped more than they did during the Depression. National debt is almost as large as our entire economy, and we owe a huge chunk of it to China. Incredibly, unfunded government promises now total about $530,000 per American household. This cannot possibly stand as the legacy we will leave the next generation."

The worse news for all of you out there in foreign-policy land is that foreign policy is going to have precious little to do with next year's election, barring some unforeseen development (which is certainly possible). That makes this second excerpt the money paragraph of the speech -- literally and figuratively. That the great national security issue of our time is the great economic security issue of our time is the central issue of this election. The economy is busted. He who seems most likely to be able to fix it wins. Romney describes the problem effectively here, and that half-million-dollar albatross he notes is hanging around every American household's metaphorical neck is a persuasively heavy number that's getting heavier all the time.

  • "The peril of this mismanagement may even be more imminent. We stand near a threshold of profound economic misery. Four more years on the same political path could prove disastrous. Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don't know how to get us out."

This is either generous or out of touch. My money is on the latter. If this is near a threshold of misery, I'd hate to feel like what it is when we get to the real thing. Of course, the best part of the comment is the slam on "career politicians," which means not our president but Rick Perry, the man who stands between Romney and the political job he has been working for all his career.

  • "I am a conservative businessman. I have spent most of my life outside of politics dealing with real problems in the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don't know how to get us out."

OK, the conservatives will debate whether Romney is a conservative anything. The best I can come up with is that he is a conservative dresser with a conservative haircut. Still, while the word "conservative" is political window dressing, the word "businessman" is the one he's counting on to get him into the Oval Office. It's not hard to do the math. If the economy is the story, Romney's main objective is to appear more competent than Obama at handling it. And frankly, the way things look at the moment, he may be able to accomplish that by standing quietly in a corner and not saying anything stupid.

  • "When members of Seal Team 6 boarded their helicopters, they did so not as Republicans or Democrats or independents; they did so as Americans. And the final image that Osama bin Laden took with him straight to hell was not a party symbol -- not a Republican elephant or a Democratic donkey -- but an American flag on the shoulder of one straight-shooting U.S. Navy SEAL."

This is barf-worthy. Just as states such as New York have laws that prohibit criminals from writing books profiting from their crimes, there ought to be a law disqualifying politicians from misappropriating the heroic actions of others that they had nothing to do with. And, as a word of caution to Governor Romney, you ought to remember that the chain of command those Navy SEALs worked in ran straight up to their commander in chief. Barack Obama gave the order. It was an act of unmistakable leadership, and therefore this is a place where you probably don't want to pick a fight.

  • "Have we ever had a president who was so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart? He seems truly confused not only about America's past but our future. So critical was President Obama of America before the United Nations that Fidel Castro complimented him for his 'courage' and 'brave gesture.' And Venezuelan dictator and thug Hugo Chávez joined in on the praise."

Obama the defeatist is an emerging theme of this campaign. Linking the president to withdrawal, decline, and capitulation will be the core formula for the Republican Party. They will seek to channel the Gipper. It's shaping up to be 1980 all over again. (And, having lived through 1980, I can tell you that's not a pretty prospect. Among the singers with No. 1 songs that year: The Captain & Tennille, Lipps Inc., Olivia Newton-John, Christopher Cross, and Kenny Rogers. No wonder we thought America was on its last legs.) Linking Obama to Castro and Chávez is ugly but effective. But going after Obama for starting out with an apology -- geesh, given the record of his predecessor he had plenty he had to apologize for before he could get anyone to even pay attention to us.

  • "First, the White House proposed cutting military spending by $400 billion over the next 12 years. Then, President Obama agreed to a budget process that could entail cutting defense spending by $850 billion. The incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has called a cut of that magnitude 'very high risk.'… This is the first time in my memory that massive defense cuts were proposed without any reference to the missions that would be foreclosed and the risks to which our country and its men and women in uniform would be exposed."

This will certainly be another Republican theme. They will argue for cutting programs for old ladies and children but preserving programs for Boeing and Lockheed. They will argue for fiscal discipline and continued excess at the same time. That may be hypocritical. It may involve impossible arithmetic. But hypocrisy and bad math are basic food groups in Washington. This kind of language is red meat in red states, even if the result is more red ink.

  • "That leaves us with the belief that America should become a lesser power. It flows from the conviction that if we are weak, tyrants will choose to be weak as well; that if we could just talk more, engage more, pass more U.N. resolutions, that peace will break out. That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge, but it's not what they know on the battlefield!"

In one press report, an excerpt from this quotation was followed by the words, "said Romney, himself the recipient of two Harvard degrees." Still, it's more about Obama, the declinist wuss. Although, again, careful Mitt. On what battlefield did you earn your stripes? (Note: Playing "Call of Duty" in your 3,000-foot game room doesn't count.)

  • "In the Mideast, we are pressuring our closest ally, Israel, to make concessions while putting almost no pressure on Palestinians. The administration was quick to criticize Israel but slow to confront Syria's strongman, Bashar al-Assad, even though he facilitated arming Hezbollah, allowed terrorists to cross his border into Iraq to attack U.S. troops, and turned weapons on his own people.… President Obama's reticence to criticize Mr. Assad echoes his unwillingness to say a harsh word about the ayatollahs of Iran when they engaged in a bloody crackdown on the dissidents who bravely protested the stolen 2009 election. The White House was so tentative in its criticism and so eager to continue its policy of 'engagement' that Iranian protesters question whether Obama was with them. What a disgrace."

Expect the Republican candidates to draw themselves so close to Israel during the campaign that Jackie Mason ends up on a shortlist for the V.P. slot. As for the criticism of Obama's stance re: Iran and Syria, it's cynical -- they probably would have done the same -- but it will continue because it is effective. The president was too slow to take a stand in both cases.

  • "In Afghanistan, the president has chosen to disregard the counsel of the generals on the ground. I don't know of a single military advisor to President Obama who recommended the withdrawal plan the president chose, and that puts the success of our soldiers and our mission at greater risk."

When I read this, I think: Romney has a very professional team of foreign-policy advisors who are in close touch with the top brass in the Pentagon and who will increasingly become a conduit for complaints and political flanking maneuvers like this one.

  • "Our Air Force is now older and smaller than it has been for decades. Our Navy has fewer ships than it has had since World War I." And then, after an attack on bloated purchasing apparatus in the military, "I will slice billions of dollars in waste and inefficiency from the defense budget. I will use the money we save for modern ships and planes and for more troops. And I'll spend it to ensure that veterans have the care they deserve."

Neat trick. Yes, this is a line from a speech that moments earlier had attacked the president for seeking cuts. Now, Romney actually manages to become three-faced by decrying the president for making cuts, then arguing for deep cuts himself, and then promising to spend what he saved on more ships and planes and troops. No deficit-cutting there. Just moving around piles of money in the Pentagon. Is it possible? Sure. Is his critique of waste and bloat on target? Of course. But shouldn't the businessman know to keep his eye on the bottom line?

  • "We've lost a couple of years, but we haven't lost our way. The principles that made America the hope of the Earth are the principles that will keep us the great shining city upon a hill. It's time for us to come together and carry our message across this country, that we're taking back America."

That great shining city on a hill is back. Republicans may not be so strong on environmental issues, but they sure do know how to recycle old slogans. Once again, their primary goal is not to defeat one another; it is to channel Reagan's ghost. Come to think of it, maybe the one guy who could defeat Romney and Perry both is psychic James Van Praagh, the medium who could reconnect Republicans to the one candidate they really want in the first place.

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David Rothkopf

The Texan-to-English dictionary: Interpreting Rick Perry's foreign-policy speech

Ramrod straight and offering up cringe-worthy physical and verbal salutes to his hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Republican presidential front-runner Governor Rick Perry yesterday offered a glimpse into what his foreign policy might look like were he to eventually become America's commander in chief.

Normally, such a speech would be an important event. It would be studied by voters and foreign leaders alike, each searching for clues about where the world's most powerful nation might be heading. But in that respect, this speech was superfluous. From its very first stiff, nuance-lite, detail-free bursts of formulaic jingoism it triggered something back in our lizard brains, releasing whatever combination of neural chemicals it is that produces dread-filled déjà vu. Sweet Josephine, says your autonomic nervous system, I've seen this movie before! The Texas Chain Saw Foreign Policy! In fact, I just saw it and have been drinking heavily ever since trying to forget. I know what happens when you elect a Texas governor who thinks borrowed, not-fully-understood opinions and strong words make up for a nearly complete lack of foreign-policy experience.

However, for those of you who like to assess such performances at more than a reflexive level, let's dig deeper. To do so we will have to first translate his remarks from Texan into English. Then, based on what we find we can determine whether this latest candidate is, like his predecessor from the Lone Star State, all hat and no cattle when it comes to foreign policy.

Let's take a few key phrases:

  • "It's a dangerous world that we live in today. As the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 approach, we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home."

    In Texan and to plenty of members of yesterday's VFW audience, this means "Let's go kick some towel-head ass." It also means, "You don't really trust this Obama to protect you from the bad guys, do you? We need a Republican back in there. We know it takes a few broken constitutional and human rights eggs to make an all-American foreign-policy omelet." Of course, since Obama presided over getting Osama bin Laden and doubling down in Afghanistan, you can't go at him head-on regarding these issues. So Perry must speak in code with words like "renew our effort," which implies we're not doing enough now without actually addressing what more might need to be done or just how we intend to take "the fight to the enemy." In more countries? In new ways? Naturally, no details offered.
  • "I do not believe that America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism. We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened and we should always look to build coalitions among the nations to protect the mutual interests of freedom-loving people."

    This is grade-school-level deftness. Does he mean adventurism like Obama in Libya? Or adventurism like Bush in Iraq? If you have to ask you are being naive either intentionally or because you can't help it. Of course, he means Obama-style "adventurism." That's why he used the "vital interest" line to echo the comments of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which asserted the United States had no such interests in Libya. It might say to some that he's not going to immediately go off half-cocked into some war of choice -- but don't count on it. Name an American president who has not ordered U.S. troops off on a mission to some far-flung corner of the world since Herbert Hoover. In fact, this country has historically taken on so many half-cocked overseas adventures you would think all our secretaries of state were mohelim.
  • "It's not in our interest to go it alone. We respect our allies and we must always seek to engage them in military missions. At the same time, we must be willing to act when it is time to act. We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies. And when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders."

    Maybe we ought to prepare ourselves for regular "I'm not W"-isms from Governor Perry. If all of them are this convoluted and transparent, however, it is unlikely they will do any good. The first bit of the statement -- distancing himself from unilateralism -- sounds like a disavowal. The second bit of the statement, however, sounds like the Bush excuse for unilateralism. It, however, has the added advantage of being a critique of Obama's multilateralist impulses and his approach to the Libyan crisis. Frankly, "we respect our allies" is the foreign-policy equivalent of "I will respect you in the morning" -- especially when it is coupled with a denigration of international institutions and the command capabilities of our allies. In fact, the thrust of this statement is really that while Perry may not be W 2.0, he is, in fact, a Cheney-ist. We'll go it alone, and we basically think the only thing allies are good for is following our orders.
  • [Perry's father, a World War II veteran] "helped liberate millions from tyranny. When he came home, he didn't seek claim or credit. He just wanted a little peace and freedom, just farm a little corner of land in Paint Creek, Texas."

    This is what we call in Texas "hokum." Get used to it. There's going to be plenty of wholesome, Hallmark-card folksiness on Perry's road to realizing his grand vision of taking over the government in order to make it inconsequential. Of course, take a little hokum, mix it up with broad generalities, and you do end up with a foreign-policy speech that would be inconsequential did it not offer such vivid flashbacks to a prior "small-government" Republican from Texas. You remember him? The one who made government (and federal deficits) bigger than ever while overseeing the most disastrous foreign policy in U.S. history?

While these subtexts and echoes of the Bush years may give you the willies, there is one set of people who love them. That's the boys and girls in the White House. They love the ascendancy of Rick Perry more than they love lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. Because they know how to run against the Bush record. They know that the one candidate guaranteed to be weaker than this president is his predecessor. As one canny former White House official (yes, a Democrat, I'll admit it) said to me, "All they have to do with Perry is dust off those old 2008 Obama campaign posters and replace the word "HOPE" with "FEAR." They know they can go after Perry for producing "fear you can believe in."

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