My first story of the 2012 US election was posted on January 1, reported and written from Iowa, where Mitt Romney began his long journey to win the Republican primary election and become the nominee. I had a catchy headline for it: Witnessing European Menace Invading Des Moines. “The only real foreign reference made by Romney [in the political rally I attended that week] was not about the Middle East or even China”, I wrote back then. “Romney - and some of the other candidates as well - have made Europe a topic of political conversation. As in: If we continue to have policies like we have now we might risk ending up being like Europe”.
I was reminded of this event and of that post in Mansfield, Ohio, while listening yesterday to Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, in a well-kept medium-size hangar where he made a short landing. Ryan was at his very best in that event, sharp and amicable. But he had no intention of talking about anything other than the U.S. economy. If there’s something that is becoming a clear theme for the Romney-Ryan ticket in the closing days of the campaign it is this reluctance, lack of interest in anything but the item in which Romney has clear advantage over Barack Obama. A TV spot approved by Obama might be about Romney’s positions on abortion, but Romney and Ryan stick with the message they think might work: the economy is in bad shape, Obama didn’t do enough to make it better and doesn't deserve another chance.
However, I was waiting to hear a word or two about foreign affairs. Two days before an American election, with the whole world watching, one might expect at least a pretense of being interested in what’s happening beyond America’s borders. Not that Obama, when I saw him two days ago, seemed interested in anything but the American domestic scene. In fact, Obama has made it a habit to tell American voters that electing him is important because he’s the candidate who will do “some nation-building here in America”. Obama, like Romney, is an internationalist. But both of them feel a political need to make the world disappear at this final stretch of the election, just when not just Americans but also the rest of the world are attentively watching the American race.
Ryan made only to references to issues that can be considered somewhat related to foreign affairs. The first was defense budget. Obama wants to cut it, Romney wants it bolstered, as we all learned before and during their third debate. Is this a foreign policy issue? Defense budgets can make a difference in foreign affairs, but the Romney-Ryan campaign hasn't used it in recent days by way of explaining why it is important for the U.S. the remain strong and by way of laying out the missions they envision for this enlarged defense are of the American government.
Romney in Virginia and Ryan in Mansfield yesterday made the defense budget a local economic issue. A large proportion of the Mansfield rally was dedicated to the place in which the rally was taking place, Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard Base, home to the 179th Airlift Wing. This base is supposed to be closed if the Obama cuts are put in place, hence the extensive discussion of defense.
The second reference to the outer world in Ryan’s remarks was a reincarnation of that long-forgotten Romney Des Moines rally. Obama, Ryan told the good people of Mansfield, is importing his ideals from the far-away continent of economic gloom. Europe – “European type policies” – is a threat, a stick. Again, it is not about talking about the world, it is about the American economy and the big bad European wolf threatening to destroy it. Europe is not the threat, Obama is the threat. The threat is the man allowing himself to consider European ideas.
So, after four days in Ohio, and who knows how many Ohio speeches, I’m yet to hear the candidates or their surrogates talk seriously about the rest of the world. Does it bother you that the candidate was not speaking about the Middle East or China? I asked a couple of attendees after the rally. Most shrugged. “This isn’t the big issue of this election”, one of them explained patiently. My accent was suspicious enough for him to attempt to sound sympathetic. Truly, it is not just the rest of the world I worry about when I see an America that isn’t much interested in making the world a topic of discussion. It is America I worry about.
Check out Rosner's new book, The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney / A Jewish Voter's Guide