Mitt Romney's UK Tour from the Other Side of the Pond

Having just returned from England after accompanying my son’s team to participate in a superbly run international youth soccer tournament, I was able to travel around the nation a bit and got to observe Mitt Romney’s trip to England from a British perspective. As a fan of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, it was disturbing to see the grand potential of his visit to England obfuscated by the candidate’s comments about the nation’s preparations for the London Olympic Games.

The message emerging from the trip should have focused on, first, the “special relationship” between the two nations. Many would argue that this relationship has been tarnished during the Obama first term through the administration’s insensitive acts, such as unceremoniously removing a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office (while not coming clean as to the real reasons for the move) and poor judgment such as the President giving the Queen of England an iPod loaded with his own speeches as a diplomatic gift in the months following his election. The second — and only other — message from the visit should have been how to fix the respective economies of the two nations.

It’s likely that British Prime Minister David Cameron was in a particularly welcoming mood for the Romney visit. He had just received his government’s economic numbers for the second quarter, and they weren’t pretty. The British economy had actually shrunk by 0.7 percent. The financial media was predicting a double-dip recession in the UK, and Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was (and still is) teetering under severe pressure to step aside since his program for recovery produced sorry results.

Cameron could have used some upbeat public talk from a business guru like Romney about the prospects for improving the faltering U.S. economy hand-in-hand with those of the UK and the rest of Europe. It’s likely that’s what he was looking forward to and banking on politically.

Instead, he was broadsided by Romney’s Olympic-sized critique of the preparations for the Games, parroting the British press. How did this faux pas, alienating a natural political ally, happen?

A clue lies, oddly enough, in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. While most American media types cited the Queen’s appearance and “Sir Paul” McCartney’s millionth rendition of “Hey Jude” as highlights, the man who truly stole the show went largely unnoticed on this side of the pond, but he brought down the house in the pub where I was watching the opening ceremonies: the inane Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson). Yes, Mr. Bean hilariously debased one of the most captivating scenes from the annals of British sports cinema (from Chariots of Fire). On another level, though, and this became clear speaking with Brits as they watched the ceremonies, the character of Mr. Bean embodies the ability of the British to laugh at themselves and to be self-deprecating even at a moment as sublime as the start of the London Olympic Games.

This characteristic is nuanced, however, as Romney’s campaign resoundingly discovered. His advisers did not sufficiently warn him from avoiding criticism of the preparations for the Olympics. They did not distinguish between the reporting of the British media (and its famous whining), about its own nation and government, and what would be appropriate for a U.S. presidential candidate to discuss. They didn’t keep Romney on message — that is, the “special relationship” and improving the nations’ respective economies. Instead, they allowed the candidate to be thrown off course by a Brian Williams question. The misguided answer became the story of the visit — and hugely disappointed David Cameron, who responded bitterly.

It is one thing for those within the nation to be critical of the UK they love and even poke fun at its most cherished institutions. It is quite another for a major political figure from another country to do the same thing.

These are the finer points of diplomacy that the Romney team needed to get its head around prior to the trip to project a stable leadership role to our most critical and loyal ally. The team fumbled the ball — or missed a penalty shot, if you will — in what should have been a resoundingly successful visit for the candidate.