Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mitt Romney and Questioning Belief

Mitt Romney went to the Citadel on Friday to trash the commander in chief.

Romney was ostensibly there to make a major address on foreign policy, a subject which, as the New York Times pointed out Saturday, has been woefully neglected in the Republican presidential campaign. As a student of American diplomatic history, I welcome attention being paid to the subject. A serious discussion of the role of the U.S. in the world is a good and useful thing.

But that's not what Romney was doing Friday. Instead, he was attacking the president. Not his policies--which would be legitimate--but his beliefs.

Romney began with a deliberate distortion of the President's words: "The other day I heard the President say that Americans had gone 'soft.'" This line, appearing in what was billed as a foreign policy speech, being delivered at a military academy, suggests that Obama was talking about the military. He was not.  He was talking about the American economy, saying it had lost some of its competitive edge over the last few decades.

Moreover, Obama went on to say he "wouldn't trade our position with any other country on Earth" because we "still have the best universities, the best scientists, and best workers in the world. We still have the most dynamic economic system in the world."

Romney either didn't bother to find out the correct context of the president's remarks, or deliberately distorted them.  And that set the tone for the whole address.

This is what passes for a foreign policy vision in Romney's speech:
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.
The phrase "American Century" was coined by Henry Luce of Time magazine back in 1941, so it is hardly original. In Romney's hands, it becomes a means of smearing of Barack Obama. Not on policy, but on what Romney believes the president believes: that Obama does not want America to be strong.

Romney says: "As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America."

This is a common refrain for Romney, and it is based on the common right-wing trope that Obama has "apologized" for America. Put aside for the moment the not unreasonable question of whether or not the country might, on occasion, have something to apologize for. Let's assume, as Romney evidently does, that the United States is, and always has been, perfect.

This charge, that Obama apologizes for America, is the subject of an exhaustive report by PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize winning website.  Its conclusion: "There’s a clear difference between changing policies and apologizing, and Obama didn’t do the latter. So we rate Romney’s statement Pants on Fire." PolitiFact has been saying Romney's charge is demonstrably false for months, and he has continued making it.

Another favorite Romney attack is that Obama does not believe in "American exceptionalism."
I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world. Not exceptional, as the President has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.
That too is a deliberate distortion of Obama's words, one Romney has been peddling for months. As Greg Sargent points out, Romney's
statement is a direct falsehood, one that’s founded on a highly dishonest reading of remarks Obama made in April of 2009. In those remarks, Obama did not make the relevant claim about American exceptionalism "derisively" at all.
Romney's claim that Obama thinks "there is nothing unique about the United States" is simply a lie. In the same answer Romney refers to, Obama said:
I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.... we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
That's what Obama actually said. But Romney knows what the president really believes.

Most reprehensible, however, is how Romney ended his address:
An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender.
I will not surrender America’s role in the world. 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.
This is rank demagoguery. It is one thing to argue that the sitting president has pursued policies you find unwise or mistaken. It is quite another to attribute beliefs to him that you know full well he does not have. This is Romney pretending to know what is in the president's mind and heart, and saying he has secret, anti-American beliefs.

Sure, Romney suggests, Obama would never say that he does not want America to be the strongest nation in the world. But I know what he really believes.

Romney's campaign slogan, with which he ended his speech, is "Believe in America."

The implication is clear. Romney believes in America, Obama does not. Romney is a real American, Obama is not--regardless of what he says.

The crowning irony is that on the very same day Romney was smearing Obama, he was himself the victim of exactly this kind of attack. A pastor introducing Rick Perry at the so-called "Values Summit" called Perry "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ" and then, in case anyone missed the point, said Mitt Romney "is not a Christian."

Later that day, when asked directly by Chris Matthews if Romney was a Christian, Rick Santorum said Romney "believes he is a Christian." When Matthews called him on that hedging, Santorum retreated: "I'm not an expert on Mormonism ... if they say they're Christians, as far as I'm concerned, they're Christians."

This is a variation of the Republican weasel words on whether or not President Obama is a Christian. "I take him at his word" is how they tried to avoid directly challenging the president while winking at bigots who insist he is not a Christian. And now the same smear is being used against one of their own. What goes around comes around.

When I heard the smear against Romney, my natural reflex was to sympathize with him. The bigotry of that pastor has no place in our politics. But given what Romney himself had done that day, my sympathy was decidedly limited. He played the same slimy game in his Citadel address.

You reap what you sow, Mitt.


  1. His speech makes eloquent reference to the integrity of his personal beliefs where he consciously lies about President Obama's actions and words. I appreciate that many things are fair in election time but this surely goes beyond the Pale. From across the Atlantic we will look at him with a cold eye for his disonesty and his jingoism.

  2. This tactic by Romney amounts to pandering to the people Chris Christie called "the crazies." This sort of attack pushes the same buttons as the "he's a Muslim" and "Where's the birth certificate?" nonsense, without making Romney vulnerable to the charge that he is actually trafficking in what he knows is nonsense.