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Is Romney Running As a “Hawk”?

Ross Douthat takes a look at Mitt Romney’s stagnating poll numbers and concludes, in part, that Romney is being held back by his hesitation to offer more clarity and creativity on economic policy and refusal to break more clearly with the Bush administration, especially on foreign policy. I find Douthat’s argument on economic policy compelling, but his estimation of the Bush administration’s drag on Romney less so.

Douthat is right to call attention to the weaknesses in the Romney camp’s favorite analogy: 2012 is just like 1980. There are parallels, of course, but their utility is limited and create the danger of Romney’s overreliance on them producing overconfidence. According to most major metrics, the Carter economy was in noticeably worse shape than the current economy. This recovery is still far too weak and unemployment far too high, and Romney has a very strong hand to play here. But Romney chose vagueness at his convention address, just as Reagan did at his, while voters seem to want more from Romney. He may very well have to respond to that.

Douthat continues:

Since Bush left office, conservatives have been willing to acknowledge his failures as a fiscal conservative and to promise more responsibility on deficits and debt. This has been a necessary and important shift, responsible both for the energy of the Tea Party in the 2010 midterm elections and for the current Republican ticket’s (relatively) brave proposals on entitlement reform.

But the shift toward fiscal rectitude is the easy part, in a sense, because it just involved calling conservatives back to their principles, without necessarily acknowledging the places where ideology might need to adapt itself to new realities. It’s made the Republicans more serious than they were in January of 2008, but it’s left the party’s post-Bush weaknesses on the economy and foreign policy conspicuously unaddressed….

On national security, he’s campaigned as a by-the-numbers hawk, with barely a hint that hawkishness might have delivered America into difficulties during the last Republican administration.

I’m not sure this is quite fair to either Bush or Romney. Americans binged on electing conservatives to Congress and, more dramatically, to the governor’s office in places like New Jersey, just to set limits on the Obama Democrats’ ability to govern. If anything, Romney has been less conservative on many of the issues than the Tea Party, yet it is Tea Partiers voters sent enthusiastically to the House and Senate while Romney fights lukewarm poll numbers.

So when Douthat writes that this Tea Party focus on debt and the deficit has “left the party’s post-Bush weaknesses on the economy” unaddressed, it seems to me the opposite might be true.

And on the “hawkishness” of Romney’s foreign policy, I think there’s less bluster to it than people seem to think. Romney took some heat for leaving Afghanistan out of his convention speech, and Politico reports that, in their estimation, at Romney’s foreign policy speech yesterday “he seemed to endorse the broad outlines of Obama’s policy.” This has actually become a popular refrain as well: Romney criticizes Obama generally on foreign affairs but hasn’t actually staked out more hawkish ground.

Then you have the Democrats’ convention, at which the crowd spent half the time cheering on targeted assassination. And then the Obama campaign rolled out its plan to “Kerry-ize” Romney on foreign policy. (Calling on Kerry to aid in the “Kerryization” of someone else is so thoroughly humiliating to the Massachusetts senator that it almost makes you hope Kerry gets something out of this after all, like the job at State that he so openly covets. Almost.)

And Obama’s most successful foreign policy moves were arguably hawkish ones. Take his announcement of the Afghanistan surge. As I wrote in March:

After Obama announced a troop “surge” in Afghanistan in December 2009, polls showed a 9-percent jump in Americans who thought staying in Afghanistan was the right course of action, and a 6-percent drop in those who opposed the war. Americans favored the speech itself by a 23-point margin. And the president saw a 7-point jump in public approval of his handling of the war.

If Romney is concerned that voters are having trouble imaging him as commander-in-chief, he will probably try to change the calculus on foreign policy, thinking it may also elevate his other numbers if he does so successfully. But it is Obama, surging at first in Afghanistan and then boasting of bin Laden and the Libya intervention, who is arguably running as the hawk in this election.