If a politician gives a speech overseas during the Olympics and the domestic press only covers the gaffes does it make a sound?
It's the question Mitt Romney's handlers must surely be asking themselves today. After days of missteps, misfires and faux pas, that made headlines overseas, and received limited but negative attention back home, the Republican presidential nominee's three-nation tour of England, Israel and Poland has finally ended following a speech at the University of Warsaw.
Still, with consecutive news cycles dominated by the Olympics, an exciting senate primary in Texas, and a possible federal budget deal, it's hard to imagine that many Americans tracked Mitt Romney's foreign movements with anything greater than passing interest.
This seems in no small part due to the efforts of Romney himself.
Throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney has most memorably framed his criticism of President Obama by using Obama's high profile appearances with world leaders to illustrate geopolitical relationships. For example, Obama's apparent bow to the Saudi King, showed that America was insufficiently assertive on the world stage. His gift to the British Prime Minister of a DVD box set coded for North American video players showed that he was insufficiently attentive to foreign allies. Finally, his decision to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia early on in his presidency (but Israel only during 2008 campaign), showed a predisposition to favor "Israel's enemies".
While this tactic allowed voters to discern the bare outlines of his policy positions, in the absence of other major policy announcements-- Romney noted several times that he wouldn’t “criticize the president on foreign soil”-- it put undue focus on Romney personal interactions with foreign leaders.
Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, his first major trip abroad did little to enhance his stature as a diplomat, with myriad distractions undercutting his overarching message at each stop along the way.
In addition, by keeping the press at arms length, he reduced his ability to drive the news and create a counter-narrative to the one that played out below-the-fold back home.
In London, where he hoped to remind voters of his successful stewardship of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, he endured withering criticism from prideful (and always protocol-conscious) British politicians and press after referencing concerns over Britain's Olympic preparation in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams. His closed door meetings the next day with many of those same officials did little to dispel the notion that he was an unwanted guest.
In Israel, where he sought to signal his support for tighter U.S.-Israeli relations, speaking before wealthy campaign donors, he suggested that the stark differences between the Israeli and Palestinian economies were in large part due to the strength of Israel's culture, earning him pointed criticism from economists and condemnation from Palestinian officials. Israel controls access to the Palestinian territories and enforces strict restrictions on trade and movement.
Lastly in Poland, where his speech was largely overshadowed by his remarks in Israel, Romney's substantive foreign policy perspectives and meetings with Polish leaders were forced to compete for column inches with reports an aide's mildly profane request for media decorum at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw.
So where does this leave Mitt Romney? Richer.
Although Romney may not have had much success transmitting his views to folks back home, he was able to speak directly to fundraisers in both London and Israel, reportedly raising $2 million and at least $1 million at each stop.
Meanwhile, with MSNBC, CNBC, and NBC presenting almost wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics, three outlets likely to focus seriously on the political, economic, and electoral implications of his overseas statements were limited in their ability to do so. In fact, NBC’s prime time, tape-delayed coverage of the Olympics surpassed live broadcasts from 2008’s Olympics in Beijing for four consecutive nights, with ESPN reporting that 31.6 million viewers tuned in to NBC’s Monday night’s broadcast.
Romney’s vice presidential search, the still-struggling economy and the impending political conventions are likely to dominate political coverage for much of August. Following that, any number of international events might provide an opportunity for Mitt Romney to provide a clearer contrast with President Obama on foreign policy at a time when more voters will be paying attention.
Judging from the headlines alone, even Republicans would agree that Mitt Romney had a bad week. That said, looking at the calendar, it’s possible that he couldn’t have chosen a better time.