Romney's Travels Take Another Detour Into Controversy

by
staff
A new furor over offhand remarks, this time in Jerusalem, overshadows his endorsement by former Polish President Lech Walesa, not to mention the statesmanlike image his campaign seeks to project.

 U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann meet people on the street in Gdansk

A new furor over offhand remarks, this time in Jerusalem, overshadows his endorsement by former Polish President Lech Walesa, not to mention the statesmanlike image his campaign seeks to project.

Mitt Romney took a major risk when he embarked on a foreign tour, inviting complex policy questions and the sort of scrutiny that he has habitually avoided, in order to broaden his appeal as a statesman. And on Monday, for the second time in five days, his offhand comments tore at the image his campaign had tried so carefully to construct.

The candidate's aides had hoped that Monday's news would center on Romney's unusual endorsement by former Polish President Lech Walesa, the Nobel Prize winner and co-founder of the Solidarity labor movement.

But that prized moment was largely overshadowed by controversy over Romney's comments several hours earlier at a Jerusalem fundraiser with top donors, including casino magnate and "super PAC" donor Sheldon Adelson. It was similar to the furor that surrounded Romney days earlier in England, after he questioned the country's readiness for the Olympics just before he was to be a guest at the opening ceremony. London's mayor publicly pummeled Romney for the impolitic remarks.

In Jerusalem, Romney had mused about the reasons for economic disparities between neighboring countries — a topic that drew his interest during his business career. He compared the gross domestic product per capita of Israel and the lesser economic heft of neighboring Palestinian areas, and noted that he had seen a similar contrast in other next-door nations including the U.S. and Mexico, and Chile and Ecuador.

"If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it's this: Culture makes all the difference," he told donors in Jerusalem after citing books he'd read on the subject. "As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things."

Though Romney had made similar comments before, his remarks took on particular significance in the tony setting of the King David Hotel, during a trip in which he had neither visited Palestinian areas nor requested a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (He did reconnect with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whom he has met on previous trips, as well as meeting with Israeli leaders.)

Palestinian representatives reacted angrily to the comment. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Romney had ignored the effects of Israeli government policy, which for years has favored economic development in Jewish areas, and the continued Israeli occupation of parts of the West Bank, which has disrupted commerce and communications in Palestinian areas.

"Oh, my God, this man needs a lot of education," Erekat said in a telephone interview Monday. "What he said about the culture is racism." The income disparity is due to "Israeli occupation," Erekat added.

Romney aides furiously pushed back against the suggestion of racism, insisting that the candidate's comments were being distorted. Chief strategist Stuart Stevens noted that Romney had made similar statements before, in a speech and in his book "No Apology," regarding Israel and the Palestinians as well as the United States and Mexico. (In his book, Romney questions the differences between the U.S. and Mexico, among others, and concludes that "America's culture ... enabled the nation to become and remain the most powerful and beneficent country in the history of humankind.")

"This is something he has said repeatedly," Stevens said. "It's a completely manufactured story."

He added, "This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians, and everyone knows that."

At the Jerusalem fundraiser, Romney offered additional ammunition for his critics when he pointed out the general good health of the Israeli people and their ability to keep medical costs down. Noting that healthcare spending in Israel is 8% of GDP compared with 18% in the U.S., he said, "We have to find ways, not just to provide healthcare to more people, but to find ways to find and manage our healthcare costs."

Israel, however, has a national healthcare system, with some similarities to the President Obama-backed U.S. healthcare plan Romney has vowed to repeal. (The Obama plan was based on the Massachusetts plan Romney approved as governor.)

It is unclear how much Romney's stumbles abroad will sway voters, if at all. He and his aides have long insisted that the race will turn on the economy. The few undecided voters are likely to be paying attention to the Olympics, not politics.

But with election day 14 weeks away, the candidates have limited time to get their message to the public.

In Romney's case, the off-key comments drew focus at least in part because of the nature of his trip.

With the exception of a major speech in Israel on Sunday, the tour has been a string of photo ops, during which the candidate and world leaders exchanged public pleasantries.

And besides a three-question news conference outside 10 Downing Street — when Romney called on two television reporters who asked about his Olympic comments — the candidate has not taken questions from reporters traveling with him. He has also been constricted by the tradition that presidential candidates avoid criticizing a sitting president while abroad.

In that vacuum of information, Romney's comments have been magnified — making him a ripe target for both the Obama campaign and foreign leaders who don't share his views.

"He's been fumbling the foreign policy football from country to country," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "There's a threshold question that he has to answer for the American people and that's whether he's prepared to be commander in chief.... This raises some questions about his preparedness."