Mitt Romney’s not-so-excellent adventure abroad (“Romneyshambles,” the Brits are calling it) has been many things: shabby, hilarious, scandalous, an enlivening hoot to a dreary election season. One thing it shouldn’t be, though, is surprising.
Charles Krauthammer, the right-wing commentator who usually finds every excuse to attack Barack Obama—he took Obama’s blinking during a tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin as a sign of appeasement—pronounced himself befuddled by the GOP candidate’s flare of incompetence.
These sorts of trips, Krauthammer said on Fox News Thursday night, are easy. You express solidarity with the allies, listen, nod your head, and say nice things or nothing at all. Instead, Romney questioned his hosts’ ability to run the Olympics, raised doubts about Londoners’ community spirit, and violated protocol by publicly mentioning a meeting with the head of MI-6. “It’s unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding, it’s incomprehensible,” Krauthammer, normally a paragon of self-confidence, sputtered. “I’m out of adjectives … I don’t get it.”
The thing that Krauthammer doesn’t get is that Romney is not the sort of businessman—that his brand of capitalism is not the sort of enterprise—that requires even the most elementary understanding of diplomacy, courtesy, or sensitivity to other people’s values, lives, or perceptions.
The American capitalists-turned-statesmen of an earlier generation—Douglas Dillon, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze—took risks, built institutions, helped rebuild postwar Europe, befriended their foreign counterparts: in short, they cultivated an internationalist sensibility at their core. Whatever you think of their politics or Cold War policies generally (and there is much to criticize), financiers formed an American political elite in that era because finance (through the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, the IMF, and so forth) was so often the vehicle of American expansionism.
By contrast, private-equity firms, such as Bain Capital, where Romney made his fortune, tend to view their client companies as cash cows, susceptible to cookie-cutter formulas from which the firms’ partners reap lavish fees, almost regardless of the outcome. Their ends and means breed an insularity, a sense of entitlement, a disposition to view all the world’s entities through a single prism and to appraise them along a single scale.
How Romney should have behaved in London may have been obvious to Charles Krauthammer, who studies politics; it would have been obvious to politically ambitious businessmen from more traditional lines of work or from an earlier era. But as we have been graced to see this week, it is not necessarily obvious to Romney himself.
Already, Romney’s surrogates back home are spinning with frantic intensity. In the face of merrily savage media coverage of the candidate’s remarks and British officials’ rejoinders, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, “The reality is, we’re not worried about overseas headlines … I think the focus needs to continue to be on what’s happening here at home. That’s what’s important to voters.”
This may be, but why then did Romney go abroad in the first place? It wasn’t to watch his wife’s horse trot and dance in the Olympics’ dressage competition (as he scoffed in another head-shaking remark, certain to anger a large number of wives who feel their husbands don’t take their interests seriously). The intent, obviously, was to demonstrate his comfort and capabilities on the world scene—a demonstration that, at least so far, has gone about as well as North Korea’s last few missile tests. And London, his first stop, was supposed to be the easy part of the trip, the place where the white, patrician candidate could forge bonds through, as one of his spokesmen put it, their common “Anglo-Saxon heritage.”
Not only did Romney fail at that no-brainer, he also put a foot through stateside customs. Before leaving on his overseas tour, he said that he would not criticize the current president on foreign soil, a long-standing, universally respected tradition in American politics. But then he spoke at an exclusive, closed-door fundraising dinner (tickets went for $50,000 to $70,000 apiece) sponsored by Barclays bank, which is currently in the middle of a whopping financial crisis. Eleven members of Parliament wrote a letter to the bank’s board members, demanding that they stop swelling Romney’s war chest and instead focus on repairing their own problems. Will Americans express outrage at this whiff of foreign influence? Obama catches hell when he raises money from Hollywood movie stars. What would happen if he flew to London or Paris and raised money from European movie stars (who don’t have as much influence as, say, European bankers).