A candidate can only fake it for so long

There was a BBC reality show I used to find interesting called, “Faking It.” The show would have someone take a crash course in a professional field that is not their own, help them try to master it, and then try to fool a panel of experts. The contestants would often do pretty well.

I think of that show every time I watch Mitt Romney tackle foreign and national security policy. It’s clear the former one-term governor is dealing with a subject outside of his comfort zone — it’s equally clear he’s out of his depth — but Romney appears to have been given a crash course in the hopes he can fool people into thinking he’s competent.

For those who care about international affairs, Romney isn’t doing a very good job. Trusted reader F.B. flagged this segment from today’s “Morning Joe,” where a panel literally laughed at some of Romney’s saber-rattling towards Iran.

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Note, in particular, that the BBC’s Katty Kay said she was “disappointed” by Romney’s remarks on Iran, because she thought he’d have “a more sophisticated understanding” of the issue.

That, in a nutshell, is one of Romney’s key rhetorical problems — he can fake it when it comes to giving the appearance of competence, which raises expectations, but the facade falls apart when anyone stops to consider the details.

Indeed, Saturday night’s debate was a disaster for Romney, at least for those who gave his answers meaningful scrutiny. The former Massachusetts governor effectively called for a trade war with China, which is hopelessly insane, and is based on Romney’s confused understanding of what’s procedurally possible at the WTO. He also called for U.S. support for “the insurgents” in Iran, apparently unaware of the fact that there are no such insurgents.

Romney went on to say he would never negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is naive and at odds with the assessments of all U.S. military leaders, and added that he’s both for and against withdrawal timetables.

For all the jokes about the clowns that make up this year’s Republican presidential field, the conventional wisdom is flawed. Romney, we’re told, is the “serious” one, in large part because he speaks in complete sentences, and isn’t bad at pretending to be credible. Ultimately, though, Romney’s efforts don’t change the fact that he’s faking it — and those who understand the issues beyond a surface-level understanding surely realize the GOP frontrunner just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Worse, Romney keeps failing these tests. Remember the time Romney told ABC News he would “set a deadline for bringing the troops home” from Iraq — but only if it’s a secret deadline? How about the time Romney, more than four years into the war in Iraq, said it’s “entirely possible” that Saddam Hussein hid weapons of mass destruction in Syria prior to the 2003 invasion? Or the time Romney pretended “Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood” were all the same thing? How about my personal favorite: the time Romney made the bizarre assertion that IAEA weapons inspectors were not allowed entry into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

More recently, Romney tried to trash the New START nuclear treaty in an op-ed, prompting Fred Kaplan to respond, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and — let’s not mince words — thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”

None of this may matter much to voters, whose attention is focused on the economy, but for voters who take foreign policy seriously, Mitt Romney is a bit of a joke.