Believe It or Not, Europeans Like Mitt Romney

The normally Republican-phobic continent is taking a surprising shine to the lead GOP candidate, which it sees as a champion against the fringe

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Mitt Romney, the GOP forerunner, met with fanfare on his recent travel to Europe./ Reuters

The presidential primaries look a little different from across the Atlantic, and not necessarily in the way that you'd expect. The coverage isn't an Obama love-fest as it was early in his presidency, nor is it entirely GOP-bashing. That said, mainstream Europe -- whose open antagonism toward the Republican party appears to have faded somewhat since the Bush years ended, despite an uptick during the health care debates -- is clearly fascinated by the current split in the Republican party. And, in the split, thus far Europeans would prefer Romney.

The European media has presented a fairly clear narrative of the primary to date: Romney's the leader but he doesn't excite Republicans -- that's the basic message. Perhaps because there's been less discussion of individual polls, there's been less hype about the as-yet short-lived leads by Herman Cain, Ron Paul, or Rick Perry. That also means, though, that there's been less journalistic reveling in the wackiness of what European (as well as some American) publications tend to portray as the wild-eyed Republican fringe. There's a hint of wariness, but it's not the full-blown incomprehension, derision, and fear that has occasionally been expressed on Continental op-ed pages.

But what Europe really does seem interested in is the split in the Republican party. "The Iowa presidential primaries reveal deep divisions among the Republicans," proclaims German paper Die Welt. An opinion in French Le Monde riffs on "Mitt Romney and the fatwas of the Republican Party." Libération describes the "Christian right" as "torn," while Spanish El País suggests Obama may be "tak[ing] advantage" of the Republican divide.

Thus far, European media voices have also expressed a strong preference for Romney over the other contenders. Clemens Wergin, for example, writes for Die Welt that the results in Iowa "show how uncertain the conservative movement in America is of its own identity." Mitt Romney represents the "classic, pragmatic, business-oriented branch." Then there's the "Christian, archconservative" side represented by Rick Santorum. Ron Paul "stands for the anti-state, radical libertarian impulses of America and for many populist reflexes. At the same time he's the candidate from whom there is the most to fear."

If that wasn't clear enough, how about this summary: "the good news from Iowa is that in this highly social conservative and less diverse state the moderate Romney can still win." Wergin adds that the "bad news" is that Paul is still a factor at all:

The Paul phenomenon makes it clear that there is an eerie potential for anger in the current conditions in America [...] It is an anger that above all feeds on the fact that the classic midle class dream of mobility in America is being dashed. Even well-educated young Americans today have huge problems getting a job appropriate to their training. [...] The vote in Iowa shows that conservatives in America apparently still don't know what they want to be: culture warriors? Isolationists? Moralists? Tied to the economy? Anti-establishment populists? Thus the Republican primary system is still good for some surprises.

The editorial board of French paper Le Monde pulls even fewer punches: it sees the difficulty Romney is having gaining support as evidence of the "ultra-right drift" in the Republican party (El País, to compare, calls it "petrified on the right"). Write the editors: "This is worrying for the U.S. -- and the rest of the world."

The standard negative narrative for Romney in the U.S. is that he's a chameleon, changing positions according to political expediency. Most liberals in America didn't take his liberal drift while governor of Massachusetts any more seriously than Republicans take his conservative drift at present. But that's not the way Le Monde sees it. The French paper sees Romney fundamentally as a moderate who "is winning only by aligning himself with the new catechism of the [Republican] party."

Previously, this narrative goes, Romney was "a New England Patrician [...] He governed Massachusetts form the center, with talent. He installed a universal system of health insurance. He defended the rights of sexual minorities, as well as that of women to abortion. He practiced a balanced budget policy. He was careful to defend the environment." Now, "he has conformed to what The Economist calls a 'list of fatwas' making up the new Republican creed." Now, "Romney is no longer the centrist he was in Boston. He no longer believes in climate change. He's opposed to abortion and gay marriage."

This French offering may be the starkest and most anti-conservative of the prominent views, but it's worth noting that the point of the article isn't to glorify Obama in contrasts. Though the final sentence admits the Republican drift is probably good for Obama, "it's bad for American democracy."

Therein lies the key to understanding this kind of European thinking. While it's important to realize this is all analytical shorthand -- Europe as a whole does not think with one mind, and even opinions on the same general path tend to diverge on specifics -- it's hard not to read a common thread in some of the media coverage of the Republican primaries. Contrary to what some might think, the tone even in condemnations isn't one of pure disdain: this is not a case of Europeans looking down their noses at Americans' Tea Party antics, the unstated view being that they'd never occur in Europe.

Arguably, it's precisely because Europe has seen its own Tea Parties that the media is so wary of America's right wing. No, this is not just another Nazi comparison: people often forget that Hitler was hardly Europe's only brush with fascism or populism gone wild. There are the extreme examples -- the French Revolution, France's July Revolution of 1830, the Revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, and on. But there's also a Christian right in Europe today: for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen's Tea-Party-like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and immigration. Despite the strong trend of European media wariness toward people like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul, European opinion and historical experience is clearly quite diverse. And that may be exactly what's informing the current across-the-water fascination with the Republican split.