Every town has a VFW Hall – on the North Side of Pittsburgh way back when, in the late fifties, the local VFW was where old men sat in the dark and sipped Iron City – not a bad beer, actually. Yes, they were Veterans of Foreign Wars, but they didn’t talk about those wars at all. There was little to say, or little they wanted to say, so they talked about fixing the damned roof or what incomprehensible things the grandkids were up to – they were World War II vets after all. The young vets, from the Korean War, didn’t join up – the VFW was for old men, and the only time you ever saw those old men was on the Fourth of July, when they marched in the local parade in their old uniforms, now too small for what had happened to them over time. But everyone applauded them, enthusiastically – they had been the good guys. And then, after the parade, they slipped back into their air-conditioned darkness again, to chat with their buddies or just sit alone and watch the baseball game on the television at the bar. After all, the VFW is a government-chartered non-profit organization and receives no actual funding from the government, so it really is something like a private club, for those who meet its one requirement – military service. They kept to themselves. No one else understood them.
It’s still the same today. The young vets, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan now, don’t join the VFW – they have their own interest groups, groups that are active politically, like VoteVets and whatever there is on the Tea Party side of things. They’d rather not sit around. They want things to change – foreign policy or veterans’ benefits or a greater effort to find jobs for those who return from our wars or whatever bugs them about things right now. They don’t drink Iron City. They drink Red Bull.
Given all that, it does seem odd that every four years both presidential candidates make a major address to the national VFW – to offer their patriotic pro-military qualifications for the commander-in-chief gig, to an audience that’s generally conservative, but not rabidly so, and, as they had seen enough of it, not enthusiastically pro-war, although they do know that sometimes you do have to fight, and you do, because it’s the right thing to do. Of course it’s pandering – these VFW guys are not a key voting bloc. But that’s okay – you’re really not talking to them at all. It’s just a chance to get some applause from the Greatest Generation crowd, before they all die off. Hey, maybe some of the Greatest Generation aura will rub off on you. That’s worth a try. So you use them, and hope they don’t resent being used as props in your movie version of who you are.
This was the week for that. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama addressed the national VFW, and because Obama already has the commander-in-chief job, this was a critical speech for Romney, as he has no military experience at all, and he has no foreign policy experience at all. During the Vietnam years Romney had a religious deferment – he was a Mormon missionary in France, which is why he’s dead-flat fluent in French – and his five sons never even thought about joining our now all-voluntary military, so not one of them has been anywhere near Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s not promising. And his only foreign policy experience was running the Salt Lake City Olympics, straightening out the finances. That’s also not promising.
But it has to be done, so the day before his big foreign trip – to the opening of the London Olympics then off to Israel, then Poland, but not, Iraq or Afghanistan – Romney spoke to the VFW and gave it a go:
Mitt Romney used a send-off speech before military veterans Tuesday to deliver a scathing indictment of President Obama’s defense and foreign policies. Tying the tepid economy at home to weakness abroad, Romney asserted that Obama’s “policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in 70 years, exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify and compromised our national security secrets.”
He may not know much, or have any relevant experience, but he’s better than the other guy:
“In dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due,” Romney said.
He was a little short on what he’d do differently, but it would be different, and the key thing is that he was a fabulously successful businessman:
“A healthy American economy is what underwrites American power,” said Romney, who was repeatedly interrupted by applause during his nearly 30 minutes of remarks. “When growth is missing, government revenues fall, social spending rises and many in Washington look to cut defense spending as the easy way out. That includes our current president.”
Reduce taxes on the rich and raise them on the poor and middle class and we’ll have amazing growth, and then we’ll have money enough for all sorts of wars. That was about it, and the reaction was quick:
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, accused Romney of launching “baseless attacks.”
“Mitt Romney has a very high bar he has not yet jumped over to convince the American people that he wants to have a serious conversation about foreign policy,” Psaki said.
Standing alongside her on Air Force One as Obama flew from the Bay Area to a campaign stop in Portland, Ore., White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed Romney’s speech as superficial and stinting on detail.
He told reporters Romney’s address was “the polar opposite” of one Obama made as a candidate before the VFW four years ago, when he made “very specific promises” on areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism.
“The president talks frequently about the challenges we face in Afghanistan, the challenges we face in Iraq, the challenge we face now in Syria and the broader Arab Spring, in Asia – the need to focus and rebalance our efforts toward Asia. I find those specifics lacking so far in what I’ve heard from the other side,” Carney said.
Those specifics weren’t there, and Steven Benen offers a clip of Obama’s address to the VFW the day before and comments:
You might notice that Obama didn’t mention Mitt Romney. In a 33-minute speech in advance of the election, the president just didn’t feel the need to reference his opponent at all. Indeed, Obama only mentioned Republicans once.
Instead of attacking, the president felt confident enough to simply tout his record of success: Obama has restored American prestige on the global stage, ended the war in Iraq, crushed al Qaeda, begun bringing troops home from Afghanistan, reduced the nuclear threat, and helped rid the world of Muammar Qaddafi. When it comes to veterans, Obama has reduced the frequency and duration of deployments, while strengthening veterans’ health care.
“Today every American can be proud that America is safer, stronger and more respected in the world,” Obama said, adding, “You don’t just have my words, you have my deeds. You have my track record. You have the promises I’ve made and the promises that I’ve kept.”
Benen sees a contrast:
In Romney Land, it makes sense to condemn timelines in Afghanistan, then promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan “by 2014.” In Romney Land, it makes sense to blame a Democratic president for budget cuts demanded by congressional Republicans. In Romney Land, as American prestige and credibility is on the rise around the globe, it makes sense to say America’s image has been “diminished.”
Romney also said this:
This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.
Think about that for a second: in Mitt Romney’s mind, as of today, the United States is no longer the strongest nation on earth. He felt comfortable leveling this attack against American strength to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, no less.
I’m curious, which country, from Romney’s odd perspective, is “the strongest nation on earth”? If the title no longer belongs to the USA who took it from us and when?
Can Romney think of another country with a better military? With a more robust economy? With a better workforce?
Put it this way: what other country outside our borders does Romney see that leads him to think, “I wish we were as strong as they are”?
Romney does have a problem here, as Andrew Sullivan explains:
The speech could have been written by wingnut bloggers. The aggressive chest-thumping, the contempt for the president, and the lack of any actual engagement with a complicated, dangerous world where specific and hard choices have to be made: all made this seem like a campaign rally for Christianists and neocons, rather than a guide to the future.
Does Romney really believe, for example, that strong, public rhetorical support from the White House would have helped the Green Movement [in Iran] rather than, as the Greens insisted, hurt them? Does he seriously want to increase defense spending massively, while cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting the debt? Would he intervene in Syria? Would he have extended our stay in Iraq; and does he want to stay in Afghanistan after 2104? I have no idea from this speech. All I know is that everything Obama has done has been a failure; that he deserves an “F” in foreign policy; and that Russia is our global foe and Iran our darkest threat.
In Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner suggests something else is going on here:
After the speech, Chuck Todd tweeted that “The Romney VFW speech felt like it was aimed at GOP voters, not swing voters.” I’d agree. Foreign policy doesn’t matter that much to swing voters, but rhetoric like this is a great way to appeal to and energize the base.
The odd VFW guys were just props in all this, useful idiots, and Jonathan Bernstein is quite clear about that:
Since Drezner is correct that voters mostly don’t care at all about foreign policy, there’s no point at appealing to them. So foreign policy talk, even more than any other policy talk, should be targeted squarely at elites. That is, in this case, the foreign policy and national community expert community. The goal? For normal non-incumbents, it’s very simple: to prove competence.
Here’s the chain. Voters probably don’t care about foreign policy – but they may care about the possibility that the person they’re electing is totally incapable of dealing with those issues.
So the bar is low:
Partisan voters will naturally absorb the views of partisan opinion leaders from their side, who of course are going to give the partisan-appropriate answer. However, very weak partisans or true independents may soak up impressions of less partisan general opinion leaders. In turn, those less partisan opinion leaders will probably absorb the impression of non-partisan or at least not-very-partisan foreign policy and national security experts.
So, sell the experts that you’re not a moron… and you’ll be fine.
But that may be the problem, and Steve Kornacki argues that Romney had only one option:
The purpose of these attacks has little to do with winning a debate over foreign policy and more to do with advancing Romney’s (perhaps only) message: that Obama is a failure.
Ed Kilgore sees it the same way:
Aside from the usual sniping at the usual distortions of Obama’s alleged apologies and prevarications, Romney mainly seemed determined to convey attitude – Resolve, Clarity, Toughness, Strength, Strength, Strength! It was more than a bit annoying to hear him denounce the pending defense spending sequestration as “Obama’s defense cuts,” insofar as the sequestration was originally hatched by congressional Republicans.
Kilgore suggests what’s really going on here:
You’d think a challenger to an incumbent president with high foreign policy ratings who himself had no foreign policy credentials to speak of would have felt the need to, you know, say something substantive. Nobody expected the articulation of a full-blown Romney Doctrine yesterday, but best I can tell from his prepared remarks, what we got was the equivalent of one of those Frank Luntz focus groups: You like this phrase? How’s about this buzzword? Am I sounding authentic? This line’s for you, Christian-conservatives-and-Jews!
Mitt “checked some boxes” and old VFW guys were left out, but Spencer Ackerman sees something odd in the speech – that Romney “agrees with Obama on Afghanistan, Egypt and maybe Iran.”
Well, he does:
Romney thinks Iran is “the most severe security threat facing America and our friends.” How he’ll deal with it can be hard to pin down. He didn’t reiterate his November call for new sanctions to halt its nuclear research. “At every turn,” Romney said, “Iran must know that the United States and our allies stand as one in these critical objectives.” That’s what Obama says, too, to justify the multinational sanctions his administration placed on Iran.
But it’s no secret that Obama and Israel are out of step, and that’s probably what Romney meant: he’s about to start a foreign trip that’ll take him to Israel.
Still: Romney didn’t deride the effect of sanctions. He didn’t pledge more cyber-attacks. He didn’t offer any (bigger) naval buildup around Iran.
And on it goes, but Kevin Drum is more succinct:
In other words, Romney will talk tougher than Obama, but not really do anything very different. At least, that’s my takeaway from the actual policy content of his speech.
Perhaps only a moron would do anything very different, and if Jonathan Bernstein is right and the sole and only objective here was for Romney to prove he’s not a moron, in the words of George Bush – Mission Accomplished.
That may be so, but as Time’s Michael Crowley points out, this was a surprisingly difficult mission:
For decades, Republican presidential candidates enjoyed a predictable advantage over Democrats on foreign policy – but not in 2012. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows President Barack Obama holding a steady 10-point lead on the question of who would make a better Commander in Chief. A recent Pew poll showed Obama with a 12-point edge on the question of who would better protect Americans from terrorist attacks. In a Pew poll four years ago, John McCain led Obama on that same question by 15 points – a whopping 27-point swing.
That’s an amazing turnaround. For three decades after the Vietnam War, Republican presidential candidates enjoyed a consistent advantage on foreign policy and national security. The Iraq War undid much of that. But Romney also brings an unusually skimpy foreign policy background for a GOP nominee. The last GOP candidate with so little experience in foreign affairs was Ronald Reagan in 1980, but at least the Gipper had a history of fervent anti-Communism.
So Romney has what Crowley calls a commander-in-chief problem:
In an election dominated by the economy, it might not be disqualifying. But in a close race, any disadvantage could spell defeat. Thus, Romney’s trip over the next week to the UK, Israel and Poland is an effort to build his credibility as a statesman.
It’s just that the VFW speech didn’t help, with Romney saying things like this – “I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power.”
That’s nice, but Crowley notes it’s not anything new:
The implication is that Obama has somehow given up on America, is more interested in apologizing for it than in restoring it. But that’s not a new idea – it’s been a familiar conservative refrain for more than three years, one that hasn’t quite stuck with many people who don’t TiVo Hannity. There’s also the fact that Obama doesn’t actually talk this way about American greatness. And the small matter of his troop surge in Afghanistan, which ticked off the left, and his intervention in Libya, which infuriated the far right.
The only thing new was this:
Romney did promise to take a tougher stand against China, confronting Beijing on human rights and trade. But so does nearly every presidential challenger unburdened by the geopolitical consequences of such actions. On Middle East peace, a white paper accompanying Romney’s speech suggests he will get tougher on the Palestinians than Obama has been. But, again, the reality of governing has stymied most every campaign promise about that Gordian knot.
Talk is cheap, and the VFW is a crowd that was only half-listening anyway. There’s nothing here. But it only got worse:
A foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign warned against policies that would aid “the Soviet Union” Wednesday, making him at least the third person from Team Romney – including Romney himself – to refer to a country that hasn’t existed since 1991 in the course of attacking President Obama’s foreign policy.
The Obama campaign has already accused Romney of having a “Cold War mindset” on foreign policy, so it naturally seized on a clip of longtime Republican diplomat Rich Williamson, a Romney adviser, speaking at the Brookings Institution Wednesday. Williamson was condemning the Obama approach to Syria.
The moron-factor just jumped up a notch, and it also didn’t help that on Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph, a leading conservative newspaper in Britain, quoted an anonymous adviser to Romney commenting on the special relationship between Britain and the United States:
“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr. Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.”
Perhaps talking about how the other guy has no concept of the wonderfulness of white Anglo-Saxon heritage, and the white man’s noble burden and all that sort of thing, was unwise, and Team Romney knew it:
“It’s not true,” Romney spokesperson Amanda Henneberg said… “If anyone said that, they weren’t reflecting the views of Gov. Romney or anyone inside the campaign.”
Oops – but the Daily Telegraph dug in their heels. They’re sticking by their story, and the New York Times’ Charles Blow adds this:
The phrases “if anyone said,” and “weren’t reflecting the views” are weak and amorphous and don’t go far enough towards condemnation. The reason is simple: the Republican Party benefits from this bitterness. Not all Republicans are intolerant, but the intolerant seem to have found a home under their tent. And instead of chasing the intolerant out, the party turns a blind eye – or worse, gives a full embrace – and counts up their votes.
Regarding the wonderfulness of white Anglo-Saxon heritage, Blow also points out the obvious:
The problem with courting or even countenancing the fringe is that it’s an incredibly short-sighted strategy. With every new gaffe the gulf between the Republican Party and our ever-diversifying nation grows…. No amount of corporate money and voter suppression can hold back the demographic tide washing over this country. As each of these gaffes further reaffirms the Republican Party’s hostility to minorities, the shorter the party’s lifespan becomes.
I for one don’t believe that this is a coordinated effort. It’s the seepage from a hateful few slipping in like water through a compromised dam. But it will not be enough for the Republicans to plug the holes. They must drain the reservoir.
They won’t. They need the votes, but domestic demographics aside, this should make Romney’s visit to Israel interesting. Folks there have heard all about the wonderfulness of white Anglo-Saxon heritage before, when it used to be called by another name, Aryan. This foreign policy stuff can be tricky. You need to watch your words, even if you are an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. Sometimes that’s not enough.
The guys sipping Iron City in the shadows at the local VFW hall on the North Side knew that. The candidates always speak to the national VFW, this year way out west in Reno. Politicians talk, but it’s your friends who die. You deal with it. The beer helps.