Political Animal


November 14, 2011 10:30 AM A candidate can only fake it for so long

By Steve Benen

There was a BBC reality show I used to find interesting called, “Faking It.” The show would have someone take a crash course in a professional field that is not their own, help them try to master it, and then try to fool a panel of experts. The contestants would often do pretty well.

I think of that show every time I watch Mitt Romney tackle foreign and national security policy. It’s clear the former one-term governor is dealing with a subject outside of his comfort zone — it’s equally clear he’s out of his depth — but Romney appears to have been given a crash course in the hopes he can fool people into thinking he’s competent.

For those who care about international affairs, Romney isn’t doing a very good job. Trusted reader F.B. flagged this segment from today’s “Morning Joe,” where a panel literally laughed at some of Romney’s saber-rattling towards Iran.

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Note, in particular, that the BBC’s Katty Kay said she was “disappointed” by Romney’s remarks on Iran, because she thought he’d have “a more sophisticated understanding” of the issue.

That, in a nutshell, is one of Romney’s key rhetorical problems — he can fake it when it comes to giving the appearance of competence, which raises expectations, but the facade falls apart when anyone stops to consider the details.

Indeed, Saturday night’s debate was a disaster for Romney, at least for those who gave his answers meaningful scrutiny. The former Massachusetts governor effectively called for a trade war with China, which is hopelessly insane, and is based on Romney’s confused understanding of what’s procedurally possible at the WTO. He also called for U.S. support for “the insurgents” in Iran, apparently unaware of the fact that there are no such insurgents.

Romney went on to say he would never negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is naive and at odds with the assessments of all U.S. military leaders, and added that he’s both for and against withdrawal timetables.

For all the jokes about the clowns that make up this year’s Republican presidential field, the conventional wisdom is flawed. Romney, we’re told, is the “serious” one, in large part because he speaks in complete sentences, and isn’t bad at pretending to be credible. Ultimately, though, Romney’s efforts don’t change the fact that he’s faking it — and those who understand the issues beyond a surface-level understanding surely realize the GOP frontrunner just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Worse, Romney keeps failing these tests. Remember the time Romney told ABC News he would “set a deadline for bringing the troops home” from Iraq — but only if it’s a secret deadline? How about the time Romney, more than four years into the war in Iraq, said it’s “entirely possible” that Saddam Hussein hid weapons of mass destruction in Syria prior to the 2003 invasion? Or the time Romney pretended “Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood” were all the same thing? How about my personal favorite: the time Romney made the bizarre assertion that IAEA weapons inspectors were not allowed entry into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

More recently, Romney tried to trash the New START nuclear treaty in an op-ed, prompting Fred Kaplan to respond, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and — let’s not mince words — thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”

None of this may matter much to voters, whose attention is focused on the economy, but for voters who take foreign policy seriously, Mitt Romney is a bit of a joke.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on November 14, 2011 10:37 AM:

    It's only when he's with the other gibbering loons that Romney looks and sounds Presidential.

    A man who can complete a sentence looks like a genius when the other people on stage next to him are on a scale somewhere from paste-eaters, to booger-eaters.

    When you isolate him from the rest of the 'mad'dening crowd, he's not smart at all - just less 'mad.'

    Really CAPTCHA?
    Where, girl, where was 'edittin discovered' ?
    Surely not at the Washington Post.

  • DAY on November 14, 2011 10:39 AM:

    The geopolitical world, like the modern automobile, is a complicated construct.
    When it doesn't run they way the Republican base would like it to, their answer is to hit it with a hammer. Preferably, a nuclear one.

  • ckelly on November 14, 2011 10:49 AM:

    those who understand the issues beyond a surface-level understanding surely realize the GOP frontrunner just doesn't know what he's talking about.

    And who would "those" be? Certainly GOP voters cannot be considered informed on any of the issues so it really is irrelevant. But golly, he sure LOOKS presidential.

  • momo on November 14, 2011 11:02 AM:

    also, Romney and other republicans are eager to cut foreign aids which is less than 0.2 % of federal budge (the smallest ratio in the developed countries) but we spend 6% of GDP on military, which is more than the rest of the world spent together.

    talking about how to assess foreign aids better so that it is effectively helping the poor in the world is a good thing, but getting rid of it all together to save money is not only morally wrong but economically wrong.

    historically, US has enjoyed a big financial return from relatively small foreign aids. Peace and prosperity is cheaper and safer than military actions.

    another practical thing about Romney saying he will stop Iran from going nuclear is that Iran's nuclear facility is in underground where you can't just simply bomb it to get rid of it. Obama has been attacking its facility through cyberattack and probably assassination of the scientists while giving foreign aids to pakistan so that pakistan doesn't give technological information to other countries, not just so that they fight with Talibans with us.

    Even Bush eventually recognized the need of diplomacy with Iran and sent his envoys to the country by the end of his term. Romney and many Republicans today are speaking as if the world is unchanged, waiting for US to take action as if Cold War just ended.

  • stormskies on November 14, 2011 11:03 AM:

    30% of our fellow citizens can not find the USA on a world map, 20% believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, 50% believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and that humans co-mingles with the Dinosaurs, 45% believe that Iraq indeed has weapons of mass destruction even now, and citizens in this country elect people like Louie Gomert, Michelle Bachman, Joe Walsh, and so on ...

    To think that the typical American actually knows anything about foreign countries in general, and foreign policy specifically, is delusional. Mitt Romney knows exactly nothing as demonstrated in his stupid remarks ... he will fit right in with the typical American ............

    fucking a

  • Josef K on November 14, 2011 11:17 AM:

    Yeah, George W kinda ruined it for any of his successors when it comes to faking being President. Reagan managed only because the USSR was still up and running, so everyone was concentrated on that. George HW managed it because he didn't actually try to do much, and anything substantive was all military-based.

    These days, with the economy in a total downturn/death-spiral? Anyone trying to fake it while in the Oval Office might as well rename themselves Louis Auguste de France.

  • Anonymous on November 14, 2011 11:28 AM:

    Mitt Romney is a bit of a joke.

    Yes, but he's a serious joke.

  • Texas Aggie on November 14, 2011 11:36 AM:

    ckelly said pretty much what my first thought was when reading the story. Who exactly among the electorate realizes let alone thinks it's important that Romney doesn't know squat about foreign policy (or job creation or the economy or ...).

    I've said it before, but it bears repeating. Mitt is suffering from the same syndrome that affected W. Both of them had accomplished fathers and both of them are useless. They realize this and want to show the world that they are better than their fathers, not worse, so in their ignorance, they do and say some really stupid things in their push for their own vindication. The fact that neither of them measures up to Dad is both the reason for their ambition and the reason that they are too incompetent to realize their ambition. W got elected president, but he made such a hash out of the job that his historical record will be as one of the worst if not the very worst president we've ever had. Romney will be much the same if he ever gets into the White House.

  • Rick Massimo on November 14, 2011 11:38 AM:

    I believe it was the already indispensible Charlie Pierce who said that Huntsman and (believe it or not) Rick Santorum were the only ones who gave any indication that they had ever considered these issues in any other context other than having woken up a couple of days ago and realizing that they might be asked about them in a foreign-policy debate.

  • DAY on November 14, 2011 11:47 AM:

    The 'best"-most qualified- candidate for the Republican nomination is not included in the debates.

  • Charlie on November 14, 2011 12:16 PM:

    The Republican candidate doesn't need to know this stuff. His plan is, once elected, to hire experts (translation: those who faked it better than him/her). Once elected he/she will announce some broad policy then let all the hired guns dress it in pretty things so it sells well.

    It's governance by the 1%, for the 1% and through the work of the little people.

    Republican don't want to govern, they want to rule.

    [They have bots that can spoof Captcha]

  • Diane Rodriguez on November 14, 2011 12:32 PM:

    Good one @ Anonymous. I should have mentioned previously but @Day, love your daily sense of irony.

    Romney's pathetic grasp of the issues is covered by the fact that he is a stereotype of the Republican candidate. He knows the difference between a noun and verb and has all his teeth. He will be the candidate. Based on his rapidly changing opinions I am fearful that as the President ( God forbid) he would merely sell his opinion of the moment to the highest bidder. It's clear he has no core beliefs other than wanting a seat in the oval office. It's like wanting to be the prom queen, i'ts an end in itself.

  • bigtuna on November 14, 2011 1:18 PM:

    Willard has what we in Utah call the mormon view of internationalization. Willard was a missionary, went to France for 2 yrs, I believe, and "learned" French. Which means he learned how to discuss some narrow views of a certain theology in French, tell people how their beliefs are wrong, why they should change to the LDS faith, and ask where the bathroom is. There are thousands of such people in the LDS realm, whose international views are thusly shaped.

    They use, when it suits them, to frame a notion of international perspective, but it is mostly bullshit. Willard just demonstrated it.

    Huntsman, interestingly, is the opposite - he also did a mission, but since, for all their faults, his daddy's business actually involves making stuff, he developed something of a real understanding for international business and diplomacy and relations. Of course, this is rewarded by the republicomorons with 2% polling.

  • Sam Simple on November 14, 2011 1:23 PM:

    The problem is, Steve, that 80% of Americans are stupid and uninformed, just like Romney. Therefore, they do not possess the intellectual tools to recognize the man is utterly full of shit!

  • Th on November 14, 2011 1:42 PM:

    My favorite part of the clip was Michael Steele trying to sound like he has a clue. He sounded like someone who hadn't done the reading getting called on in class.

  • Swellsman on November 14, 2011 1:44 PM:

    Steve, your "personal favorite" re: the IAEA inspectors not being allowed in is quickly becoming the standard history of the run-up to the war, as re-written by Republicans. Condi Rice was on The Daily Show recently and among the more egregious falsehoods she spewed while attempting to justify the Iraq War was a flat-out declaration that Hussein had kicked the inspectors out and had not allowed them back in.

    Stewart, unfortunately (and, given some of his past interviews, somewhat surpisingly to my way of thinking) did not call her on this bullshit.

  • Cha on November 14, 2011 3:10 PM:

    Yeah, that's too bad Jon Stewart did not call Condi on her bullshit. It would have been good reality tv if he had. Wonder why he didn't..in light of other times he has been known to step up?

  • MKS on November 14, 2011 4:06 PM:

    Any of the GOP candidates has more substance than our current President has, even at this point in time, and far more than he possessed in 2008.

  • 4jkb4ia on November 14, 2011 11:30 PM:

    Well, Cole is certainly going to read this :) I was trying to tell him that these debates haven't destroyed Romney yet.

    Thank you for bringing up the disgrace that was Romney and New START. It's a cautionary tale on how much he will pander to the far right and not even pretend to know anything.

  • 4jkb4ia on November 14, 2011 11:41 PM:

    Why should we believe that Mitt can stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? What personal qualities of diplomacy has he tried to make us believe that he has? It is bigger than Russia even.

  • Steve Egger on November 23, 2011 6:01 PM:

    I'm very pleased.....they are all Idiots.