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Should a presidential candidate talk about foreign policy?

The news that Mitt Romney is planning a overseas trip/foreign policy address has led to some... interesting reactions among libertarians/realists.  Even before the trip was announced, Daniel Larison thought it was a bad idea for Romney to focus on foreign policy at all.  After the trip was trial-ballooned, Larison still thought it was a bad idea -- as did Justin Logan at the Cato Institute (guest-posting on Steve Walt's blog). 

As someone who thought this wasn't the worst notion in the world, it's worth reviewing their objections.  In toto:

1)  Romney's neoconservative-friendly foreign policy views are unpopular in both the United States and many of the countries on Romney's itinerary -- so there's no upside.  As Larison puts it:  "Romney’s hawkish critics haven’t fully grasped that foreign policy has become a weakness for the GOP over the last six years, so it makes no sense to them that it might help their presidential candidate to avoid talking about it."

2)  This is an election about the economy, and any energy Romney devotes to foreign policy is wasted.  As Logan notes, "Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in.... Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election."

3)  Even if (1) and (2) do not apply, there is very little political upside to be gained from visiting other countries.  Larison goes through the various possible upsides for a challenger to go abroad, but doesn't find them terribly convincing. 

So, how to respond?  First, let's parse this out into two questions.  First, should candidates talk more about foreign policy because it's good for democracy?  Second, is it in their own political interests to talk more/visit other countries? 

I hope Larison and Logan would agree that, political imperatives aside, it would be A Good Thing for the Country if presidential candidates talked more about foreign policy.  Presidents have much more leeway in conducting foreign policy than domestic policy.  They wind up spending about half their time and energy as president on foreign policy.  Given its importance to the office, the fact that it's not talked about all that much during the campaign is kinda problematic.  It might be worthwhile for major party candidates to openly discuss/think about their foreign policy views just a bit.

Now, on whether it's politically savvy for presidential candidates to talk about this stuff, I largely agree with Logan and Larison.  Voters don't care about foreign policy.  In Romney's case, however, there are a few reasons why a summer foreign policy trip makes some sense. 

First, er, it's the summer.  Logan is correct that foreign policy wonks tend to confuse what interests them with what interests the public, but so do campaign advisors.  The undecideds aren't dwelling on politics at the moment, and likely won't do so until after the Summer Olympics are over.  All these peple will do is process the occasional headline.  If Romney has to choose between this headline and ones about foreign policy, he might prefer the latter. 

Second, at least one of his foreign policy trips will play well domestically.  Larison and Logan grumble about it, but they both appear to acknowledge that the Israel leg of the trip would likely fire up the evangelical base and peel off disaffected Jews from Obama's coalition.  If he's going all the way to Israel, then a few more days/stops make some sense.

Third, and finally, Romney dug his own grave on this issue.  In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case.  In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place.  If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism -- and focus again on the economy in the fall.  And eliminating base citicism matters domestically -- the media tends to magnify within-party critiques as being more newsworthy. 

The best criticism is Larison's contention that the actual content of Romney's foreign policy vision might not go down so well with the American people.  This might be true, but it might not be.  The thing is, no one is entirely sure what Romney thinks about foreign policy.  Maybe his op-eds were nothing but rhetorical bluster -- as campaign musings about foreign policy tend to be.  It's also possible/likely that whatever foreign policy speeches he delivers in the next month or so wouldn't match his actions once in office.  As I noted last year, however, there is value in having a presidential candidate demonstrate "generic foreign policy knowledge." 

I suspect both Larison and Logan would prefer a foreign policy in which the United States doesn't aim to do as much abroad, allowing the country to retrench and revitalize the domestic economy.  That's a compelling argument (and, actually, one that President Obama made in his first few years of office).  Just because Romney might disagree with that approach, however, is no reason for him to clam up on foreign affairs this summer.  As a democracy, we're entitled to hear about how he thinks about these issues.  Politically, a well-executed foreign policy trip won't net him a lot of votes, but it would cauterize a festering politcal wound and allow him to pivot back to the economy. 

Daniel W. Drezner

If I were Mitt Romney's travel agent…

The Romney campaign has come in for a fair amount of criticism in the past week or so. Most of this is fairly typical summer doldrums stuff, but some of it has to do with Romney's foreign-policy musings -- or lack thereof. On this issue in particular, William Kristol, Gerry Seib, Fred Kaplan, and, er, your humble blogger have been pillorying the campaign for a near-complete lack of substance.

According to Politico's Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, the Romney campaign seems to have been listening:

Mitt Romney’s campaign is considering a major foreign policy offensive at the end of the month that would take him to five countries over three continents and mark his first move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, sources tell POLITICO.

The tentative plan being discussed internally would have Romney begin his roll-out with a news-making address at the VFW convention later this month in Reno, Nev. The presumptive GOP nominee then is slated to travel to London for the start of the Olympics and to give a speech in Great Britain on U.S. foreign policy.

Romney next would fly to Israel for a series of meetings and appearances with key Israeli and Palestinian officials. Then, under the plan being considered, he would return to Europe for a stop in Germany and a public address in Poland, a steadfast American ally during the Bush years and a country that shares Romney’s wariness toward Russia. Romney officials had considered a stop in Afghanistan on the journey, but that’s now unlikely.

Sources stressed that the trip was still being planned but will be finalized internally this week, and some of the details are subject to change. While Romney is likely to lash Obama in his VFW speech, he’s expected to restrain his remarks about the president when speaking abroad.

Huh. Now, obviously, I can't comment on the content of any of these speeches. Still, the country selections are themselves revealing, as Burns & Haberman elaborate on in their Politico story. How do those choices stack up? Laura Rozen was a bit skeptical, tweeting that "his reported itinerary only seems 25 yrs out of date." Kristol responded in the Politico story by urging Romney to go to Afghanistan.

My initial response falls more into the Larry David camp on this one. The goal of a trip like this is twofold: to try to demonstrate some kind of foreign-policy gravitas, and to draw a distinction between one's foreign-policy views and that of the opponents. The second part is really tricky to do overseas, because one of the few norms of comity left in Washington is that public officials aren't supposed to criticize a sitting president's foreign policy in foreign lands. Romney can finesse this by going to countries where he thinks he can foster a stronger bilateral relationship, in contrast to Obama (it would be more awkward for him to go to countries where he thinks the U.S. should be less friendly, so I think we can rule out stops in Moscow and Beijing).

By that standard, this is a decent list. The stops in Israel and Poland highlight the frictions the Obama administration's rebalancing and reset strategies have created in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Going to Germany allows Romney to ding Obama on economic policy, as Romney is clearly more sympatico with Angela Merkel's austerity strategy.

If I were planning the itinerary, however, I'd suggest two additional stops. First, India. That's another country where bilateral relations have cooled off a bit during the Obama years. It's also one of the BRIC economies, which would allow Romney to disprove Laura Rozen's charge of being out-of-touch with current geopolitical realities. Second, Seoul. This would allow Romney to blast North Korea with invective while talking about his vision for the Pacific Rim.

What do you think? Where would you have Romney go visit?