The world tour from hell

There’s no spinning away how badly Mitt’s trip has gone. The question is whether it will really damage him

Published July 31, 2012 12:37PM (EDT)

It isn’t really surprising that it’s come to this – a Mitt Romney press aide snapping at reporters to “kiss my ass” and “shove it” as cameras rolled in Poland. The aide, Rick Gorka, subsequently apologized to those he berated, but the incident figures to get wide media play today, the latest in a string of distractions the Romney campaign has caused for itself during the candidate’s week-long foreign swing.

Of course, this isn’t exactly how the Romney team sees things, which helps explain Gorka’s outburst. Those sympathetic to the presumptive GOP nominee contend that the negative coverage his trip has attracted is a simple product of media bias, a press corps hell-bent on turning any misstep or unscripted moment into something far more scandalous than it is.

They’re free to believe this, but outside of the Republican Party base, it’s probably not a widely held view. By any reasonable measure, Romney’s overseas trip has not been the success his campaign hoped for, and the candidate and his team are primarily to blame.

You can argue, for instance, that Romney didn’t actually say anything unreasonable when he gently suggested to Brian Williams that preparations for the London games had been “disconcerting.” After all, the British press and public had been saying the same thing for months, in far blunter terms. But Romney failed to grasp that his status as a visiting American politician would color the Brits’ interpretation of his words. That’s not a mistake a candidate who’s playing at the presidential level should make; the abuse that was heaped on him by the British press and political leaders really was Romney’s fault.

The other black marks on Romney’s trip – confusing statements over how a President Romney would respond if Israel wanted to attack Iran, suggestions that cultural superiority are the reason Israelis are more affluent than Palestinians, and now the “shove it” moment – can similarly be chalked up to a surprising lack of precision and discipline by the candidate and his team.

When you get down to it, the whole point of the trip for Romney was to not make news. That is, the simple fact that he was traveling the world and meeting with foreign leaders would be enough to guarantee heavy press coverage. His main task was to look the part of a president, be gracious to his hosts, and smile for the cameras; doing so would convey to voters back home the message the Romney campaign wanted to deliver: See, you’ll have nothing to worry about if this guy is president. Instead, the trip has been defined by one unflattering headline after another.

Under the worst-case scenario for Romney, all of this will be enough to give swing voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote out Obama serious pause about Romney’s fitness to lead. That’s not likely, though, since for all of the attention Romney’s trip has attracted, most voters still aren’t paying attention – and for those who are, the story will be overtaken by something else next week, and something else the week after, and so on, until it’s a distant (at best) memory. The real political threat to Romney is subtler and harder to quantify – that the noise the trip has generated will at an almost subconscious level affect the basic impressions some swing voters have of Romney. By itself, this won’t matter for much. But combined with all of the other potential weaknesses Democrats are trying to exploit (Bain, his taxes, his top 1-percent lifestyle), it could nudge swing voters’ distaste for Romney that much closer to the point at which they consider him an unacceptable option.

That said, if you want to find the political silver lining in Romney’s trip, it’s this: At the same moment he was being torn to shreds by the British press, it was announced that GDP growth had slowed to 1.5 percent for the second quarter. The news wasn’t shocking – slow growth had been expected – but it wasn’t encouraging either. And it was exactly the kind of news that the Romney campaign, which is banking on the economic anxiety of swing voters overwhelming whatever reservations they have about Romney, is banking on.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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