Mitt Romney has mastered the art of an impressive maneuver worthy of an Olympic gymnast: the double reversal. Within two days he has changed positions twice on why Palestinians in the Occupied Territories live in abject poverty.
After initially walking back his comments attributing Israel’s prosperity and its neighbors’ lack thereof to their respective cultures, Romney has decided to double down, posting an item on National Review’s website defending his statement.
It all started on Sunday, when Romney said the following at a fundraiser in Jerusalem:
The GDP per capita for instance in Israel which is about $21,000 and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.… Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. One, I recognize the hand of Providence in selecting this place.
Naturally, some Palestinians took exception to the implication that they are culturally deficient or disfavored by God. Speaking to the Associated Press, Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.”
Romney ignored the much more obvious culprits than culture, such as security restrictions, in suppressing Palestinian economic growth. As Ashley Parker wrote in the New York Times:
The Palestinians live under deep trade restrictions put in place by the Israeli government: After the militant group Hamas in 2007 took control of Gaza—home to about 1.7 million Palestinians—the Israelis imposed a near-total blockade on people and goods in Gaza. The blockade has been eased, and now many consumer goods are allowed in. But aid organizations say the restrictions still cripple Gaza’s economy. The West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians reside, is also subject to trade restrictions imposed by the Israelis.
The International Monetary Fund has observed the correlation between Israeli restrictions on trade and movement in the West Bank and Gaza and economic growth in the territories.
Even the people Romney was trying to compliment, Jews, might have been unnerved. Shalom Goldman wrote in Religion Dispatches, “It’s not only the Palestinian leadership that should be aghast at his remarks. Essentially, what the GOP’s candidate for president was saying is that ‘Jews are good with money.’… Students of Jewish history, and of Christian-Jewish relations, can’t help but being horrified by the tone-deafness of such language.”
Romney responded to the criticism by doing what he always does: he changed his position and lied about what he had said before. In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday morning Romney said, “I did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy.… That is an interesting topic that perhaps can deserve scholarly analysis but I actually didn’t address that. I certainly don’t intend to address that during my campaign.”
But by Tuesday night Romney had changed his mind again, deciding that the effect of culture on economic outcomes is, in fact, central to his campaign. At 8 pm National Review posted a commentary by Romney:
What exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom.…
Israel is also a telling example. Like the United States, the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law. It is a democracy that has embraced liberty, both political and economic. This embrace has created conditions that have enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom.
Romney redefines cultures to include precisely the external factors—democracy, the rule of law, economic freedom—that liberals would agree are sources of prosperity. So now the Palestinians’ lack of economic freedom, at the hands of the Israeli occupation, is categorized by Romney as somehow a failing of Palestinian culture.
There are countries under no foreign occupation that also lack democracy, the rule of law and economic freedom, and their economies suffer accordingly. But to describe that as a national cultural characteristic—sort of the inverse of American work ethic—is absurd. North Koreans aren’t poor because their culture abhors economic freedom, while South Korean culture celebrates it. They are poor because they live in a totalitarian state that restricts it.
It is hilarious to see Romney pretend that Israel is some Republican paradise of free market policies. While in Israel Romney praised Israel’s healthcare system for being innovative and far more cost-effective than America’s. Israeli healthcare is, of course, completely socialized.
Romney’s intellectual dishonesty aside, it is curious that he even chose to do this at all. Why would he want to extend the life what is widely considered a gaffe? I’ve come up with three possibilities.
§ He wants to show strength. Romney has a well-earned reputation for flip-flopping and lacking core convictions. The current issue of Newsweek features a cover story by Michael Tomasky arguing that Romney is a wimp. Perhaps Romney wanted to show that he is capable of confronting critics and defending his turf for once. The only problem with this theory is that he would have been much wiser to do so on an issue where he had not already backed down.
§ He really believes this. It’s hard to fathom, since Romney seems to believe so little. But it’s the answer I got from every political professional I asked. Perhaps Romney does not lack a political spine but simply has his in an unusual place. Romney clearly lacks convictions on social issues, foreign policy and regulatory questions, so he makes the most politically expedient pander. But he does show conviction on certain vague economic principles. For example, he will not back down from saying that corporations are composed of people and they are not some evil abstraction. Perhaps the idea that economic benefits accrue to societies that are blessed with cultural virtue, rather than advantageous circumstances, is a similarly deeply held belief for Romney. It would make a clear corollary to his view that his own vast wealth is attributable to personal virtue rather than luck or greed.
§ Conservatives really believe this, and so Romney is trying to excite them. Typically, Romney reverses himself under pressure from conservative pundits. In this case, while conservatives were defending Romney’s original statement, there had not been a right-wing backlash against him for going wobbly on it. But perhaps Romney realized that standing on this principle would energize his base. “This is something that conservatives actually believe,” wrote Soren Dayton, a Republican political strategist, in an e-mail. “And, in many ways, it is clear that Arabs do too, reading the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report, in which Arab scholars ask the same question that Romney did. To run away under pressure from Saeb Erekat and the political correctness police would be intellectually bankrupt and counter to a decade of debate within the Arab world itself.” (You can find a summary of the report Dayton references here.)
As the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) observed, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”