It’s no secret that Mitt Romney wants to make this election about the economy, but international affairs have a way of upsetting a campaign’s agenda and can remake a race in unpredictable and volatile ways.
The question is whether Romney is prepared for a national conversation that veers off course and overseas, or whether he’ll be caught flat-footed.
But President Obama flew to Afghanistan to meet with troops and address the nation. His campaign, meanwhile, cut a Web ad remembering the moment bin Laden was killed and questioning whether Romney would have made the same decision.
The Romney campaign immediately pounced, attacking the president for politicizing the issue, while Romney remarked that it would have been an easy decision even for Jimmy Carter, who has a dovish reputation, to make.
By the time the dust had settled, it was clear that Obama had come out the winner. He’d coaxed Romney into an argument about one of the few great, unifying political moments of the past four years.
The dust-up over foreign policy proved what polls have suggested for months — Romney should be wary of tangling with Obama on the issue. In a CBS/New York Times poll last month, 30 percent of voters said they were “very confident” in Obama’s ability to be an effective commander in chief, while only 13 percent said the same about Romney.
An April Washington Post/ABC poll also showed the president’s formidable advantage. On international affairs, voters preferred Obama to Romney by 17 points, and the president sported a 7-point advantage on terrorism. Notably, those were the only areas voters approved of his performance.
Thus, foreign ground is very favorable ground for Obama and, consequently, treacherous territory for Romney attacks.
But if foreign policy becomes a more salient issue this general election, there’s an opening for Romney and an opportunity to put Obama on the defensive.
In the same Washington Post/ABC poll, only 36 percent approved of the president’s handling of Iran and its possible development of a nuclear bomb, while 52 percent disapproved.
In fact, that was the only foreign-policy issue on which the president’s numbers were negative, and unfortunately for him, it’s likely to become increasingly important as Iran continues its steady march toward nuclear development.
It’s not immediately clear why Obama’s numbers on Iran are so dismal, but clues suggest that voters could see him as weak.
Why? There’s strong consensus that the United States should take the hardest line possible against Iran, and do it sooner rather than later.
In March alone, Reuters/Ipsos, CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal released surveys showing big margins (+17 points, +15 points and +12 points) supporting military action if the United States deems Iran close to developing a nuclear weapon.
Obama, of course, has called the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear bomb “unacceptable” and has refused to take the military option off the table. On Tuesday, Vice President Biden offered some of the administration’s harshest language to date on Iran, warning that country that the time for diplomacy is running out.
“The window [for diplomacy] is closing in the near term,” Biden said in a speech in Atlanta. “This cannot go on forever. When we took office … there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem. We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region and in Europe. The international pressure on Iran was stuck on neutral …
Tehran had allies that were intimidating its neighbors, and America’s leadership was in doubt.
“Today it is starkly, starkly different.”
Americans seem to be ready for action in Iran.
A March Pew Research Center poll showed that 54 percent worried that the United States would wait too long in taking action against Iran, while only 34 percent were afraid the country would act too quickly. In other words, respondents thought the United States should err on the side of action, not caution.
That suggests that voters might like a more aggressive approach than Obama has taken. And Romney has accused the president of being too slow in embracing economic sanctions.
In a March op-ed for The Washington Post, Romney criticized Obama’s handling of Iran and outlined the hawkish approach he’d take: “I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions.”
If polls are to be believed, Romney’s aggression could be rewarded, meaning Iran presents an opening that would be difficult to find on other foreign-policy concerns, like terrorism.
But Romney has a tricky path here.
Focusing on Iran could risk provoking a conversation on foreign policy, overall, where Obama is perceived to be strong. If Romney accuses the president of being weak in dealing with America’s enemies, Obama can point to bin Laden’s capture and killing. Thus, any gain from talking about Iran could be negated by the other conversations that topic would provoke.
It’s a risky path for Romney but might be his best shot if the conversation should turn away from the economy and to foreign policy. For his part, Obama needs to be careful with using bin Laden as a trump card too often. So far he’s wielded it effectively, and it’s likely to be helpful in the future, but waving the bin Laden flag repeatedly might start to strike voters as unseemly and political. In that case, Romney might start to land some punches on Iran.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com