Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address Monday hammered home his argument that voters should oust an in-over-his-head President Obama.
With 29 days to go before Election Day, Romney worked hard to capitalize on a strong debate performance last week that polls suggest has voters giving his candidacy a second look. A Pew Research poll released Monday afternoon showed Romney with a 4-point lead.
While Democrats dismissed his address at the Virginia Military Institute as devoid of details and substance, several foreign policy experts gave him good reviews and argued he largely accomplished his goal of setting himself up as a viable alternative to Obama on the international stage.
The GOP presidential nominee skewered the president’s handling of the Middle East, saying Obama was leading from behind and had failed to match up with previous U.S. leaders from both parties.
Much of the address repeated long-standing arguments from Romney, most notably that Obama has not done enough to support Israel in the Middle East or to prevent Iran from accessing nuclear weapons. He promised a strong missile defense program regardless of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s views.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, who has criticized Romney on foreign policy in the past for a lack of specifics, offered praise for Monday’s speech.
“It wasn't the vague airy-fairy stuff of earlier; he made a rational case on Russia, a smart case on the Middle East and on Iran,” she said. “The key was to make a better case for the U.S. in the world than Barack Obama; I believe Romney did so.”
Romney also touched on Iraq and Afghanistan, where he criticized Obama for removing U.S. troops too quickly and for political reasons.
In addition, he accused Obama of offering too little support for rebels in Syria and for not putting conditions on U.S. aid.
Romney aides said the main drive of the speech was to present Romney as a bolder leader than Obama, something they think could help their candidate pick up voters focused on domestic issues.
“There were clear differences on Syria policy, on aid conditionality, but also I think the overall theme that came through in the speech today was regarding U.S. leadership and how the U.S. is perceived abroad. And I think that is a message that could potentially resonate with Americans,” Hamid said.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’s Women and Foreign Policy program, had a similar take.
“Romney continued the line he effectively used last week at the debate, that it is time for new leadership,” she said. “He did not set out to offer details, but to settle concerns that he isn't a credible alternative. And the speech today did that.”
Democrats countered by attacking the lack of details.
“Despite calls from within his own party and across the spectrum for a detailed blueprint for America's role in the world, Romney offered a blend of inaccurate critiques and proposals for initiatives that are already underway,” the liberal-leaning National Security Network think tank said in a statement.
In a conference call with reporters, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she'd give Romney a “C” if he were one of her students. She acknowledged that Monday's speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington would sound “pretty good” to “those who are not totally into foreign policy,” but that it was in fact “full of platitude and free of substance.”
Other Democrats skewered Romney on policy specifics. They pointed out that in his quest to look tougher than Obama across the board, he doubled down on the unpopular suggestion that America should still have troops in Iraq.
“In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent al Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad and the rising influence of Iran,” Romney said. “And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence.”
Romney also criticized Obama for what he characterized a politically motivated decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, saying his own policy would be guided by the direction of military leaders — a stance that appeared to at least open the door to keep U.S. troops in the country for a longer period.
Aides to Romney brushed off criticism about a lack of details, and the speech, coming just four weeks before the election, was clearly designed more for swing voters than foreign policy wonks. During the address, Romney repeatedly accused Obama of having “led from behind,” of having “failed to lead,” and of displaying “passivity.”
Further driving that point home, Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proudly declared to a campaign audience as Romney spoke: “that's what leadership looks like.”
The perceived foreign policy gap is one Romney needs to bridge. In a New York Times/CBS News poll of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania released earlier this month, the president led by at least 15 percentage points in each of the three states among voters “very confident” in the candidates' abilities to be an effective commander in chief.
But Team Romney believes its candidate was boosted substantially by his strong debate performance — and benefited tremendously from being seen as holding his own on the same stage as the president.
Acknowledging that they must both convince voters to fire the president and hire the Republican nominee, Republican strategists say the debate performance and foreign policy speech were designed to make Romney look presidential.
Moreover, they acknowledge, a more credible candidate can better critique the president on a broader range of issues, including those most likely to motivate swing voters.
“The Romney guys see foreign policy as a part of a larger narrative that President Obama's leadership is lacking,” said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. “If they can tag him as leading from behind abroad, they can turn around and tag him with the same thing at home on domestic issues like the economy.”