While I don't recall gaffes of similar magnitude by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, both early on gave answers on several key areas that perfectly befit their backgrounds as domestic policy wonks. Clinton made woefully naive statements about the George H.W. Bush policies in Bosnia, Haiti, and China before dutifully adopting those very policies upon sitting in the big chair. Obama spent months hanging on to the notion that he would talk to various potentates "without preconditions" before shifting the meaning of that phrase sufficiently that it exempted all the standard preconditions that every president ever has insisted upon before embarking on summit meetings.
The rise of the Tea Party movement has exacerbated the problem for Republicans, increasing the appeal of populist neophytes like Cain and Bachmann -- articulate spokespeople who lack the credentials normally associated with serious candidates for the presidency. But the system is working in the manner it always has: while Cain, Bachmann, and Perry all had their 15 minutes as front-runners (and even Donald Trump had 2 or 3) their folksy appeal has not been enough to overcome their obvious deficiencies as potential chief executives and commanders-in-chief.
The first delegate won't be awarded for another two months, but it's nonetheless pretty clear that it's Mitt Romney's nomination to lose. And, while he's made his share of dubious statements, by and large he's articulated a Realist foreign policy that's a lot like Obama's -- which is to say, very much in line with the consensus that has dominated American international relations, with very brief interruptions, for decades.
Perhaps Romney's silliest foreign policy moment thus far is his declaration that he would take China to the World Trade Organization as "a currency manipulator." Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who's currently at 2 percent in the polls, says this is "pandering" and that the WTO lacks jurisdiction. While there's some expert disagreement on that, Huntsman is certainly right that a "trade war" with China would be incredibly foolish.
But here's the thing: If Romney is elected president, he won't carry out that policy. Not because of his well-earned reputation for flip-flopping but because being a candidate for president is different from being president.
Despite the mythology of the president as a lone decider, he's actually simply the chief of the executive branch of our government. Faced with the consensus of the intelligence community, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Council of Economic Advisors, and other institutional founts of experience, presidents are quickly confronted with the realities of the limits of their power. Bush didn't want to do TARP and Obama didn't want to let the big banks off the hook. Not only were these policies anathema to their core ideological beliefs but they were poisonous with their constituencies. But it's almost impossible to overrule experts telling you that ignoring their advice will send the global economy into a tailspin.
Many of our recent presidents -- including Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama -- took a hard line on China in the debates. They softened almost immediately in office.
Romney's declaration that "We can't let China walk all over us" is not only a winner with the American public but seems indisputable from a public policy standpoint. But, like his predecessors, a President Romney would be faced with dire warnings from the legions of experts in the executive bureaucracy about the consequences of rash action. And, like his predecessors, he'd back down.
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