“When your opponent is drowning,” James Carville advised in “All’s Fair,” the 1995 book he wrote with his wife, “throw the son of a bitch an anvil.”
His words came to mind yesterday, when Mitt Romney opened what was designed as a friendly, image-boosting international tour by questioning Britain’s preparation for the Olympics and the readiness of its people to rally around the games, comments that provoked a loud and derisive outcry from the British press and political class.
In Romney’s defense, what he said about the London games is actually tame compared to what Britons themselves have been saying. But surely he should have known the country would have no appetite for hearing it from a visiting American. And so he’s become an unwitting source of national unity – the ill-mannered Yank that all of Britain now wants to prove wrong.
From Barack Obama’s standpoint, of course, this couldn’t be working out any better. Romney’s trip had two main goals: 1) to burnish his foreign policy credentials and to acclimate Americans to the idea of Romney representing them on the international stage; and 2) to bring particular attention to three countries – Britain, Israel and Poland – whose close relationships with the United States have frayed on Obama’s watch, at least according to the right’s narrative.
As Charles Krauthammer, who is probably Obama’s most vitriolic foreign policy critic on the right, put it, Romney really didn’t have to do much more than show up for the trip to be a success. Instead, he opened his mouth and undermined both of his goals. Whatever the right might say about the Obama administration damaging the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K., Obama has never caused an incident like the one Romney did yesterday. As an exasperated Krauthammer remarked last night, “All Romney has to do, say nothing. It’s like a guy in the 100-meter dash. All he has to do is to finish, he doesn’t have to win. And instead, he tackles the guy in the lane next to him and ends up disqualified. I don’t get it.”
Handed this gift, the White House did its best to make matters worse for Romney. At his daily press briefing, Jay Carney went out of his way to point out that Obama had been briefed by John Brennan, his chief national security adviser, and that the president has the “utmost confidence in our close friend and ally, the United Kingdom, as they finalize preparations to host the London Olympics."
Carney played dumb when he was asked if he was disclosing the Brennan briefing to draw further attention to Romney’s comments, but it’s hard to believe that’s not what was up. The White House has to be careful not to overtly undermine Romney as he travels abroad, but they’re certainly not above finding ways to tweak him and to make his headaches worse.
The same instinct will be on display today, with this:
“President Barack Obama is reaffirming U.S. ties with Israel, upstaging Mitt Romney one day before the Republican challenger visits Jerusalem,” AP writes. “The White House says Obama will sign legislation Friday that expands military and civilian cooperation with Israel. The bill passed by voice vote in the House last week. The bill reiterates U.S. support for a negotiated two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
It won’t be surprising if the White House also finds a way to grab some attention during the final stop on Romney’s tour, Poland. But by that point, it might not really matter. Romney’s trip is already a failure. The only question now is how bad it will get.