Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch has had a very busy few days. Just as his campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom promised, Romney is abandoning his self-described “severely conservative” persona, and what we know his real agenda to be, in favor of a newfound moderate image.
It started in Wednesday night’s debate, when Romney—after running hard to the right on every issue for the last six years—suddenly switched positions on a range of issues. Romney falsely claimed, for example, not to be proposing a deficit-busting tax cut for the wealthy on the back of the middle class, even though his tax plan is just that. And he swore he would increase funding for education, even though his budget and that of his running mate would require cuts to federal education spending.
On Friday, after Romney had apparently been given a free pass from conservatives for his apostasies, Romney decided it was finally safe for him to repudiate his notorious assertion that the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes are lazy and entitled wards of the state. (They are largely retirees, the disabled and the working poor.) Since that position is dogma on the far right, Romney stood by the comments, even as they hurt his poll standings. But in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Romney said, “Now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong…. my life has shown that I care about 100 percent.”
And on Monday Romney delivered a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, in which he reversed a number of his previous positions.
Given President Obama’s success in combating Al Qaeda, Romney has been largely at a loss as to how to draw a contrast on national security. For most of the campaign, he has avoided articulating a foreign policy approach, in favor of single-minded focus on the economy.
When he has had to take positions on international issues, Romney has used every conceivable attack on Obama, even ones that are mutually exclusive, without articulating a remotely coherent vision of his own. During the debate, as he has throughout the campaign, Romney attacked Obama both for cutting defense spending and for not doing enough to promote the Simpson-Bowles commission report on deficit reduction. But Simpson-Bowles calls for cutting defense spending significantly. If, as Romney asserts, the defense sequestration cuts would endanger national security, then so would Simpson-Bowles. (Romney also conveniently ignores the fact that his own running mate, Representation Paul Ryan (R-WI), voted for the sequestration cuts and against Simpson-Bowles.)
In his speech, Romney made similarly hypocritical, self-contradictory arguments. In essence, Romney tried to portray himself as a more aggressive advocate of America’s national interest and opponent of America’s enemies. But that can come into conflict with his own professed admiration for free trade and his oft-repeated assertion that the United States should stand by its allies even when they are wrong.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, wrote in an e-mail to The Nation:
[Romney’s] book No Apologies explicitly condemns Obama for taking too hostile an approach to China on trade; Romney now claims he will slap the currency manipulator on China on his first day in office, and “punish” China for its trading tactics.
Romney slams Obama for insufficiently supporting our allies. Yet when our allies oppose his positions — on negotiating with Iran, on arms control with Russia, on missile defense — he ignores them.
In Virginia, Romney said, “It is the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”
The examples he offers are that we are not doing enough to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, we are letting Al Qaeda regroup in Iraq and we have not intervened militarily in Syria.
But Romney offers no specific alternatives that would be more effective. Obama has imposed stiff sanctions on Iran. Short of going to war, what would Romney do differently? He did not say.
“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability,” said Romney. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” Well, that sounds tough, but it is precisely what Obama has done. So what else would Romney do? Escalate military tensions. “I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.” So, Romney pledges a costly and provocative expansion of the American empire. Why Iran would abandon its nuclear ambitions because of some aircraft carriers in the gulf is unclear. As for cooperation with Israel, the Israeli government has called the Obama administration’s cooperation with Israel, “unprecedented.”
When Romney does get specific, it exposes a disturbing ignorance. “When millions of Iranians took to the streets in June of 2009,” complained Romney, “when they demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world, when they cried out, ‘Are you with us, or are you with them?’—the American President was silent.” That is because, as anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Iranian public opinion can tell you, if Obama endorsed the Iranian opposition it would delegitimize them internally. Just because they oppose Iran’s oppressive regime does not mean they want to be, or want to be seen as, American puppets. Romney either does not know, or does not care, that what he demands would actually be counterproductive.
In his most nakedly dishonest assertion, Romney said, “I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the president has failed.”
But in the same speech at a Florida fundraiser in which he uttered the “47 percent” comment, Romney dismissed the prospect of Palestinian statehood. Romney said:
I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, “There’s just no way.” And so what you do is you say, “You move things along the best way you can.” You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.
This is not the bold, assertive leadership that Romney promises he would bring to the White House. But that should come as no surprise. Romney tries to project an image that is wildly at odds with his true character: a coward who will pander to any audience but lacks any core convictions.