As I've mentioned after each of the debates and showdowns of the past few months, Mitt Romney plows steadily forward. He doesn't make (many) mistakes. He's well-prepared and briefed. He knows how to answer any question that comes up -- all these are the advantages of having been on the national campaign trail before. And while on the merits I don't like his shameless attack-from-the-right on Rick Perry's immigration policy, essentially mocking Perry for saying we should have a "heart" about illegal immigrants and their children, it is effective. While I also realize that many on the GOP's right deeply mistrust him, his position is like John Kerry's in the 2004 Democratic race. He is the man to beat.
But boy is his "big" foreign policy speech at the Citadel today a bunch of nothing. (Right, Romney on his previous Citadel visit.) You don't have to believe me: read it for yourself, in this authorized version at the Romney campaign site.
At its very most generous interpretation, it's an argument that we need to have an American Century again. Fine! I agree. But his attack is based on the utterly bogus Fox/GOP meme that the Obama Administration has been "apologizing" for American strength and viewing the U.S. as non-"exceptional." In fact, Obama has expressed the best and most consistent arguments for American exceptionalism that we have heard from politicians in years. And has anyone noticed his actual policies? On bin Laden and al Qaeda? On international financial negotiations? Defense spending? Use of drones? Etc.
Realistically, I am aware (a) that the election is mainly going to be about the domestic economy, both because that matters more to voters and because Obama is more vulnerable there, and (b) that in a presidential campaign the "out" party is always going to say that the "ins" are ruining America's standing in the world. My first political memories are of the John F. Kennedy campaign hammering Eisenhower's Republican party -- Eisenhower! -- for allowing the U.S. to fall behind in a "prestige gap" relative to the Soviets, not to mention the (also bogus) "missile gap."
So the rhetorical stance is predictable and fine. But if there is going to be a "big" policy speech, shouldn't it contain some actual policy? Check out this one and see what you can detect, apart from the "we should be greater" theme, plus "we are Israel's friend." The name "al Qaeda" does not appear in the speech. (Hmm, I wonder why.) The name "Pakistan" appears, but not with the slightest suggestion of what to do about it. "Iraq" does not appear at all, other than to acknowledge Citadel alums for their service there. "Israel," for benchmarking purposes, appears six times. For every other part of the world, the policy more or less boils down to this:
"But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
"God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
"Let me make this very clear. As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America."
Great! And me neither, about the apologies. But as a guide to handling even a single difficult question, good luck in finding answers in this speech. Again, to be absolutely fair, do read it yourself and let me know what you've learned.
On the other hand, we've now seen a second similarity between Romney and Obama, the first of course being their health-care plans. Just look at the final line of his speech.
Update: for an assessment that comes to similar conclusions but in more detail, see Spencer Ackerman. Also, from National Security Network / Democracy Arsenal.
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