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The September Surprise

By Elvin Lim


Mitt Romney definitely did not count on foreign policy becoming a major issue two weeks after he chose budget hawk, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate, making his the weakest ticket on foreign policy for decades.

What is even more perverse is that Romney himself chose to go off message. Instead of hammering Obama on the economy, he decided to come out to call the administration’s alleged failure to deliver a more forceful repudiation of the attacks on four Americans in Benghazi “disgraceful.” The result is that foreign policy will now dominate the airwaves even more than it would have without Romney’s provocation. It also means that foreign policy will figure more in the upcoming debates than it would have, and Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, who know a lot more about economics than war, will have plenty of opportunity to trip up against Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

This is a continuing pattern of a campaign in constant search of an attack strategy that would work, one that willingly goes off message because for whatever reason, the message isn’t working. A merely reactive campaign waiting on the sidelines to jump on a mistake cannot have a coherent message.

The fact, anyway, is that President Obama is far more vulnerable on his economic record than he is on foreign policy. Yet he is not vulnerable enough. And this is the dilemma that the Romney team has not been able to resolve in the last couple of months. Each time they have tried a new message other than the economic declension narrative on the national debt and unemployment, they have had to ease up on the only strategy that has worked, but only to an insufficient degree. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Infusing foreign policy into the campaign, however, is particularly counter-productive for the Romney campaign because foreign policy is a very poor fit with their existing economic message, unlike say healthcare reform / repeal. This is why the RNC convention barely talked about foreign policy. When voters are uncertain about their economic future, they have historically been prepared to take a leap of faith in a challenger candidate. But when voters are uncertain about global unrest, they have tended to stay the course with the incumbent. Further, Obama’s likability numbers translate most easily into his role as Commander-in-Chief. This is not an area on which he could be easily challenged, however loudly the voices of a minority in the Republican Party suggest otherwise.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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