In his “big” foreign policy speech Monday, Mitt Romney said of Barack Obama: “I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope.”
If that sounds milder, more moderate, than Romney was playing it a few weeks ago, welcome to the “let Mitt be Mitt” era.
Romney and Obama are different players, taking different stands. But Romney’s veering more and more toward the old Michael Dukakis line from 1988: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.”
Mitt has not blurring all the margins, however.
Consider the domestic component of Romney’s foreign-policy speech: the section where the Republican nominee for president committed himself to a dramatically more aggressive embrace of “free-trade” than Obama.
In his speech, Romney said:
I will champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world. The President has not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years. I will reverse that failure. I will work with nations around the world that are committed to the principles of free enterprise, expanding existing relationships and establishing new ones.
Those of us who pay serious attention to trade debates know that Barack Obama has signed “free-trade agreements” with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. (The disingenuous distinction Romney makes is that negotiations on those deals began under George W. Bush.)
What Romney’s actually complaining about are the indicators—few and far between as they may be—that the current president is more inclined toward mitigating the damage done by those deals than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, who took their orders from Wall Street as opposed to Main Street when it came to global trade issues. And the key word there is “modestly.” Obama has not begun to do enough to develop the “high-road” approach to trade policy that has worked reasonably well for nations such Germany, which place an emphasis on implementing strong industrial policies at home while developing international relationships that benefit domestic manufacturing concerns and workers.
But Romney thinks that Obama’s small steps in the right direction—through action to address specific abuses and a more cautious approach to negotiating new deals—are a problem.
Making free-trade on the Clinton-Bush continuum “a critical element of our strategy” will mean more North American Free Trade Agreements, more most-favored-nation trading relationships with countries like China, more outsourcing and more de-industrialization.
That’s a prospect that ought to terrify voters in states that still make things—such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and North Carolina.