Six months ago, the U.S. election was about the economy, and little else. Nearly everyone agreed that for Mitt Romney to win, he’d have to exploit Barack Obama’s glaring weakness: an economy that was as stubborn as the Congress that refused to rescue it. Unemployment was high, Europe’s future was uncertain and the markets were volatile. Not coincidentally, polls showed the two men neck and neck.
But now Mitt Romney has kicked off the week of the first presidential debate – which is focused on domestic policy – with a foreign policy op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Noting the recent protests over the Innocence of Muslims video and the Iranian nuclear program, Romney writes: “These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere ‘bumps in the road.’ They are major issues that put our security at risk.” Obama’s now just as vulnerable on foreign policy as on the economy, and Romney seems to realize it. So what’s the problem? Voters are still basing their decision overwhelmingly on the economy. Romney has flipped the electoral script, but it’s not a winning strategy. He would be wise to get back on message before it’s too late (which it already may be).
Over the past few months, the global and domestic economies have averted the double-dip disaster that seemed so imminent. The Europeans have made significant strides toward a stronger union, the Supreme Court upheld the Democrats’ healthcare law, Ben Bernanke moved forward with a new round of quantitative easing, the housing sector appears to be growing again, and consumer confidence is at its highest in the last four months. That unemployment remains high and GDP remains weak means that 81 percent of voters still think that the economy is “not so good” or “poor,” according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. And yet that and other polls show that there’s an even split on which candidate voters think is best equipped to handle the economy.
And so Romney has moved to foreign policy. Over the past couple of months, all the news from the Middle East has been bad. The killing of Osama bin Laden has been overshadowed by a region that is once again restive. Shoddy embassy protection, a U.S.-China relationship that’s tenser now than at any point since the Cold War, broken diplomacy with Russia, cool relations with Israel, an intractable civil war in Syria, and rising attacks on NATO troops from Afghan security forces have all gotten more headlines than revised GDP figures.
Romney has tried to capitalize. Last week at the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered an address, but skipped meetings with foreign leaders. Romney campaign officials and other Republicans questioned whether Obama’s light schedule meant he wasn’t taking foreign policy seriously. But what was the point in meeting with foreign leaders when there is, at this moment, so little that can practically be done with such obstructive partners? As my mom used to say, if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.