Let’s specify that Mitt Romney probably would have been better off keeping any doubts about London’s preparations for the Olympic Games to himself. The British press jumped on the supposed insult to the United Kingdom implied in Romney’s description of the preparations being “disconcerting” and his question about whether the event would be embraced by the people of London. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose desire to emulate Barack Obama has at times bordered on the embarrassing, was just as quick in firing back at Romney by claiming that it was harder to organize an Olympics in London than “in the middle of nowhere,” which no doubt will not endear him to the people of Utah (where the GOP candidate headed up the 2002 Winter Games).
While the American media following Romney is declaring his trip a disaster even before it has gone on for one day, there’s no reason for Republicans to panic. Though the remark must be acknowledged as a gaffe, those claiming Romney has sunk the special relationship between the two countries seem to forget that supporters of a president who gave Cameron’s predecessor a set of movie DVDs that can’t be played on British systems are in no position to squawk too much about minor diplomatic errors. Yet, even if we acknowledge that Romney has once again shot himself in the foot, his gaffes are tribute to his awkward personal manner, not ignorance or incapacity. So while they are embarrassing and may get him off message, they are not the sort of thing that can do him serious political damage.
There are serious questions to be asked about the London Olympics, including the wisdom of the massive expenditure of funds at a time when Britain is suffering through austerity budgets as well as the fact that almost all Olympic hosts are generally left worse off than before they started. But because Romney is an unrepentant Olympic booster, he is probably the last person to pose such questions.
This kerfuffle does once again illustrate his capacity for running his mouth when he should keep it shut. Throughout the primary campaign we saw that the GOP candidate had the capacity to sometimes say far too much. Though a serious thinker about policy, he lacks the natural politician’s instinct to say what should be said at times as well as the same ability to avoid unguarded utterances. Obama’s cool and scripted responses have proven that avoiding gaffes is no guarantee of wisdom. But Romney’s team must come to terms with the fact that their man is always going to be vulnerable to moments like these. No amount of insulation from the press is going to stop him from saying things like this again.
But unless Romney liberates Poland as Gerald Ford did in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter (an example of a real policy gaffe), this sort of thing won’t do him much political damage. After all, Romney is in London for a photo opportunity and to raise money or to win British votes.