Romney Tries to Fill GOP National Security Void

March 05, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Mitt Romney at a book signing in Huntington, N.Y., on Wednesday (William Regan- Globe Photos) Mitt Romney at a book signing in Huntington, N.Y., on Wednesday (William Regan- Globe Photos)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) effectively clinched the 2008 Republican presidential nomination in the 10 days between the South Carolina and Florida primaries. Up against a wall, with polls showing Mitt Romney moving up as Rudy Giuliani faded, McCain unleashed a new attack. Romney,he said, had given up on the Iraq War. Romney, said McCain, had wanted to “surrender and wave a white flag” and “set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster.” Thrown off his message, Romney stopped talking about the economy and tried — in vain — to get McCain to back off. Gov. Charlie Crist (R-Fla.) endorsed McCain, the senator won his state’s primary by 5 points, and within two weeks Romney would drop out of the race.

[GOP1] Romney won’t be caught in that position again. That’s at least some of the rationale for “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,”a book he is launching with a national tour, a round of media sit-downs, and a series of speeches. The title — which Romney credits to an aide after he had spent “at least six months trying” to think of one — is a knock on President Barack Obama for purportedly conducting an “American Apology Tour” in other countries. For roughly 100 pages,Romney lays out a visionfor American foreign policy defined against Obama’s “radical reworking of American and Western leadership” — and what Romney characterizes as Obama’s view that “America is in a state of inevitable decline.”

For a politician whose every action points at a 2012 White House bid, it’s a bold move. As unemployment hovers near 10 percent and health care reform trudges through Congress, support for Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been a source of strength. Pollingreleased in January and Februaryfound approval of Obama’s handling of terrorismin the 50s, even after a thwarted airplane terror attack on Christmas Day 2009. AGallup pollreleased last month found support for Obama on foreign policy at 51 percent, 15 points higher than support for the president’s domestic record. AFranklin & Marshall pollreleased last week found the same thing, with 57 percent of Americans backing the president’s approach to Afghanistan and a slight majority backing his overall foreign policy. The president and his party are more vulnerable on economic issues, which Romney, a self-made multimillionaire, has a unique ability to speak out on. Instead, he’s opted to challenge Obama on his foreign policy strength.

“It’s a good juxtaposition,” said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Republican Party in Romney’s first home state of Michigan. “Obama has said he kind of wants to create this new world order. It’s been a year since his worldwide tour, and we haven’t seen many successes — potential adversaries are taking advantage of our perceieved weaknesses.”

Romney’s focus takes advantage of several developments in Republican Party politics. Despite Obama’s popularity on national security, one of the surest ways to draw standing ovations in conservative crowds is to call the president out for weakness, apology, “abandoning our allies” or “giving civil rights to terrorists” — points Romney made inhis speech to CPACand makes again in “No Apology.” And as Republicans look toward possible presidential candidates for 2012, the current field lacks any contenders with the built-in national security credibility of McCain. Some Republican strategists and conservative activists say that opens the door for any candidate to win over veterans and national security-minded voters by speaking out first and taking a hammer to Barack Obama.

“There are really no divisions between Republicans on national security,” said Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain campaign strategist who now works with Liz Cheney’s Keep America Safe. “There will be events we can’t predict, so you’ll see the candidates take different positions. I think you saw that in 2008. Everybody’s for keeping Gitmo open, so Romney will say ‘double it.’”

During Romney’s 2008 run, tactics like that couldn’t quite win over the GOP’s national security voters. Inexit polling of the Floridaprimary, for example, 44 percent of Republicans called McCain “most ready to be commander-in-chief.” The 27 percent of primary voters who’d served in the military backed McCain by seven points over Romney; those with no service record backed him by only three points.

But no candidate on the 2012 horizon has a record like McCain’s — or any military record to speak of. Among the dozen candidates seen as most likely to jump into the race, politicians whose names have appeared on straw polls or who have been invited to address GOP dinners,noneserved in the military.

“If you’re gonna run for president you just have to make clear what your foriegn policy stances are,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and a Fred Thompson backer in 2008 who eventually switched to Romney. “It may have more to do with views and ability than with whether you were a corporal or private in the military. Perhaps what [Romney] wants to do is check that box on his resume. Everybody has to check that box.”

The way that Romney checks that box in “No Apology” is illustrative, with positions inspired by neoconservative thinkers — Fred Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas P. Barnett –cited throughout the text. America, argues Romney, is one of four competitors with “distinct strategies for twenty-first-century world leadership,” with the others being China, Russia, and “the jihadists.” Romney sees the first two rivals increasing their military power in a way that might cut America out of their spheres of influence. Were China, for example, to “become capable of declawing America’s military in Asia, they will gain freedom of action to do whatever they choose in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.’” The solution to this is more military spending: Romney calls it “inexplicable and inexcusable” that the 2009 stimulus package “devoted almost no funding” to defense. In other sections of the book, as in his speeches, Romney argues that President Obama is creating mounting crises by not dealing aggressively with critics of American power. “The day is coming,” he writes, “when [Venezuelan President] Chavez announces a ‘peaceful’ nuclear program organized and supported by the mullahs in Iran.”

These, said Republican strategists, are arguments that will build up Romney’s commander-in-chief credentials in the possible 2012 field. Possible candidates like Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), they said, hadn’t focused on national security to the same extent. Only supporters of Newt Gingrich suggested that their candidate could get a jump on Romney, pointing out to TWI that the former speaker of the House is also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar and Professor at the National Defense University and a co-chair of the UN Task Force, and has held other educational or ceremonial defense positions. But no one argued that Romney was staking an early claim on the GOP’s national security vote.

“By articulating it early,” said Anuzis, “by making a strong case early, he establishes his credentials — even if they are theoretical and political.”

At the same time, liberals who look at the foreign policy polling data are skeptical that Republicans have so many openings on President Obama’s national security record.

“There is a large sub-group of the Republican base for whom this is absolutely a winning argument,” said Heather Hurlburt, a Clinton administration veteran who now leads the National Security Network. “There’s a larger swath of moderates/independents — maybe as much as a third of the electorate — for whom national security is a ‘threshold issue.’ They aren’t — consciously — voting on national security issues. But they can’t really take in a candidate’s pitch on jobs, healthcare, values, whatever, if they haven’t first been convinced that the candidate will keep them safe and shares a baseline understanding of the threats we face. The ’06 and ’08 elections — and Obama’s ratings on national security and foreign policy — show that these people can be quite receptive to international approaches that start with diplomacy, engagement, cooperation and persuasion — as long as they believe that strength will be used when necessary.”

Some conservatives agreed, saying that whether a candidate like Romney can ride this message to success in 2012 — not just primary victories, but the White House — depends on what Obama does. David Frum, the former Bush administration speechwriter who now runs the Frum Forum website, wondered whether Obama was benefiting from a “benefit of the doubt bump.” It would take a while to sort out whether Romney’s play for national security cred was working.

“He’s got a theme and a tone,” said Frum, “but not a message.”