This Offer Is Unrepeatable

Mitt Romney gave a speech billed as a major foreign policy address yesterday, just before he embarks on a quick world tour.

I may get around to the substance later (here’s Dan Drezner’s quick reaction post), but I noted several comments about target audiences just after the speech. Drezner figures it’s aimed at domestic constituencies, and notes that “swing voters don’t care about foreign policy,” which is no doubt true; indeed, it’s hard to find very many Americans who care much about foreign policy, certainly as a voting issue. Chuck Todd said it sounded aimed at Republican voters. Seth Michaels speculated that Romney had to keep selling to those Republican voters, since they still don’t trust him. And Heather Hurlburt had my favorite one: “#Romney speech specifically aimed at greatest generation voters, given lack of references to post-1945 developments.”

So: who should presidential nominees be targeting with their foreign policy speeches?

That’s easy. Since Drezner is correct that voters mostly don’t care at all about foreign policy, there’s no point at appealing to them. So foreign policy talk, even more than any other policy talk, should be targeted squarely at elites. That is, in this case, the foreign policy and national community expert community. The goal? For normal non-incumbents, it’s very simple: to prove competence.

Here’s the chain. Voters probably don’t care about foreign policy — but they may care about the possibility that the person they’re electing is totally incapable of dealing with those issues. Partisan voters will naturally absorb the views of partisan opinion leaders from their side, who of course are going to give the partisan-appropriate answer. However, very weak partisans or true independents may soak up impressions of less partisan general opinion leaders. In turn, those less partisan opinion leaders will probably absorb the impression of non-partisan or at least not-very-partisan foreign policy and national security experts.

So, sell the experts that you’re not a moron, and they’ll sell the David Gergens of the world, and you’ll be fine.

What complicates this for Romney is the distance on some issues between Republican partisans on national security and, well, everyone else. It’s hard to say something that will please both John Bolton and Dan Drezner. The likely result in such situations is mush, and for the most part that’s the direction Romney is taking.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.