Where’s Moderate Mitt on Foreign Policy?

As many observers have noted, the focus of the third and last presidential candidates’ debate on foreign policy is not particularly fortunate for Mitt Romney. Best anyone can tell, his rise to a dead heat with Barack Obama in the polls is primarily a function of two things: (1) His Moderate Mitt routine (particularly when it went unchallenged during the first debate) has enabled a chunk of “economic referendum” voters to support him; and (2) the self-generating power of perceived success, which is palpably getting Republican “base voters” whipped up into a frenzy in anticipation of that glorious day when the evil black man is ejected from the White House.

Foreign policy is not terribly germane to the whole “economic referendum” framing, and there’s no evidence a significant number of voters are on the edge of wanting to “fire” Obama over foreign policy issues. Just as importantly, on the international topics that have come to the fore during the campaign, Romney’s positioning is not very “moderate,” yet cannot be “moderated” without either sounding too much like Obama’s or upsetting some element of the GOP “base” just as they gird themselves up for Election Day.

Consider the advice offered to Romney for tonight’s debate by the New York Times‘ Bill Keller. Here are the headlines: (1) Go easy on Benghazi; (2) Say Something nice About the Palestinians; (3) Extend a hand to Mohamed Morsi; (4) Concede that the war in Iraq was a mistake; (5) Don’t rush into Syria; (6) Open the door to a deal with Iran; (7) Apply some Bain rigor to defense; and (8) Cool it on China.

Taking Keller’s advice would involve almost exactly a 180-degree turn in Romney’s foreign policy positioning. Yes, the MSM and low-information voters have proven themselves to be remarkably easy to manipulate via protestations of moderation on domestic issues that have not been backed up by policy specifics; and/or by asserted policy positions that aren’t real (i.e., the repeated claims that Romney health “plan” covers people with pre-existing health conditions). But how does a presidential candidate who has repeatedly and heatedly and redundantly defined America’s interests in the Middle East as identical with those of Bibi Netanyahu do (2) and (6)? How does the nominee of a party whose base is for the most part quite happy with the idea of American foreign policy being organized around a straight out war against Islam going to do (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)? Can a candidate who’s been running around Hampton Roads telling voters that they’ll all starve if the defense budget is allowed to decline an iota suddenly get Bain-ish on Pentagon spending? And how on earth can Romney “cool it on China” after making his hostility to that country central not only to his foreign policy but to his economic policies, and to his differentiation of himself from George W. Bush?

Perhaps the strategic calculation of the Romney campaign is that having drawn even with Obama via mendacious positioning on domestic issues, his job tonight is to look “responsible” and reduce the impression that he’s going to bring the exact same crowd that gave us the Iraq disaster back into power, just as determined to launch a war with Iran right now as they were to launch a war with Iraq when they gained power in 2001. But in a campaign where foreign policy has simply offered Romney martial background music for his main pitch, focusing on it for 90 minutes without visibly frothing for war or looking like a stooge for defense contractors or his friend Bibi won’t be easy. My guess is that he’ll spend much of the debate trying to change the subject back to the economy under the tired but ever-ready argument that America is getting sand kicked in its face on the international beach because of its economic puniness. So we need a good strong domestic austerity plan to buff ourselves up. It makes no real sense at all, but the good thing about Mitt Romney as a candidate is that he can say the most astounding things with a straight face.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.