During the last few weeks of this presidential campaign, I have become terribly confused listening to Mitt Romney address America's foreign policy challenges.
I have followed Romney's every word for almost two years now, and I simply don't recognize the guy who spoke at Virginia Military Institute on October 8th or the one who showed up to debate President Obama last week.
Since the beginning of this long campaign, Romney has given ten foreign policy addresses. At every turn he has positioned himself as a severe critic of the Administration, condemning the president for "diminishing American leadership" and "betraying the trust that allies place in the United States." Taking his cue from his bevy of neo-conservative advisers, Romney has appeared to embrace their tenets and even conflated their projection of American exceptionalism with elements of his own Mormon creed. His message has been that "America must lead through strength" and use its "great power to shape history."
And so it has been baffling to witness the sudden transformation that now sees Romney largely agreeing with President Obama's approach to several areas and while feigning sharp criticism in others, still fundamentally agreeing with current policy. When he lamented the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (after just recently dismissing the entire effort as hopeless) and then offered such benign pronouncements as "we can't kill our way out of this mess" or "we don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan," I became thoroughly unsettled.
Listening to this "kinder and gentler" Romney, two questions came to mind. Was all this a tactical ploy to sway undecided voters? Or was this the candidate's declaration of independence from his neo-conservative advisers (three-quarters of whom are George W. Bush alumni)? Since Romney has also selectively veered away from many of his other "severely Conservative" views during the last few weeks of the campaign, I tend to believe that it is more of a crass tactical move than an assertion of independence.
In describing Romney's effort at a "latter day make-over," President Obama has coined the word "Romnesia" suggesting that the candidate may have forgotten the positions he embraced throughout the campaign. I tend to disagree. I don't think Romney has forgotten a thing. I think he's counting on the fact that his base knows the game that's afoot and is willing to give him space to maneuver. The projection of the "new Romney" is directed at those Americans who are only now tuning in to the presidential contest and being introduced to the candidate for the first time. Romney is hoping that they will get to know him in his newly minted moderate incarnation. He is, likewise, hoping that some undecided voters who have heard him before will not recall the Romney of the primaries and believe that this "kinder and gentler" version is the one running for president.
I found it interesting that some non-partisan commentators remarked after the debate that both candidates seemed, at times, a bit off stride. It was no wonder. Romney has been playing a part for years now. Once dismissed as the seemingly moderate Governor of a liberal state, he was dismissed by the religious right and not trusted by the new GOP with its Tea Party activists and neo-conservative brain-trust. And so Romney remade himself into the Conservative darling. Back in 2008 when this transformation began, I didn't know what was more unbelievable -- that Mitt Romney had in fact become a conservative or that conservatives really believed that he was a conservative.
He embraced his conservative identity to such a degree that in his now infamous taped off-the-cuff conversation with donors, he rather comfortably elaborated on how compatible his hard-line views were with the party's new mainstream. And so I don't doubt for a minute that adopting this new moderate posture has a bit disconcerting to candidate Romney. Cynics sometimes say that in politics "the best actor wins." Becoming a different person and feeling comfortable with the part may have been too much of a stretch for Romney.
For my way of thinking the act was too cute by half. I've heard of candidates changing their positions on critical issues over a period of years. They sometimes even make a convincing case about the evolution of their views on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or global warming. But to make changes in one night or two weeks, without offering any explanation, is a bit too much to bear or trust.
I, therefore, understand the president being caught a bit off stride. He had prepared to debate the candidate whom we had all come to know for the past few years. Even Senator John Kerry, who had taken the Romney part in the president's debate preparation, expressed his surprise at much of what Romney said. Kerry remarked that these weren't the positions they had prepared to contest, nor was this the candidate they had prepared to debate.
The Mitt Romney who showed up on debate night was a different person. The questions for voters will be: for which Mitt Romney are they being asked to vote? And should he win, which Mitt Romney would show up for work?