Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan, the young congressman from Wisconsin, as his running mate suggests that foreign policy will likely play little to no meaningful role in the elections.
Paul Ryan is known as a stalwart conservative in the House of Representatives. He has been unabashed in his calls to drastically cut both taxes and government spending, and in his support for conservative social positions on issues such as abortion.
But Ryan, like Romney himself, has little experience or visible record in dealing with foreign policy issues. He is a signatory to letters and bills presented by fellow members of Congress, especially from the Republican side of the aisle, which deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UN, Israel, and other issues, but none of these was initiated by Ryan.
The American economy is still reeling from the aftershocks of the 2008-9 financial crisis, with unemployment in July at an alarmingly high 8.3 percent, up from April’s 8.1%. The country’s public debt has reached just over 100% of GDP, translating to the equivalent of what the American economy produces in a year, with a current federal budget deficit of over $1 trillion suggesting that the situation will worsen. While Democrats and Republicans argue over who is responsible for the country’s economic woes — the crisis began during the second term of Republican president George W. Bush — there is general agreement among campaign veterans from both sides that a bad economy is a bad omen for an incumbent president.
No incumbent president in American history has won reelection with such a high level of unemployment. And most of the negative economic numbers are still moving in the wrong direction. The Romney campaign believes that these economic woes, which touch every American family, will define November’s election. Americans will barely notice the debates over America’s foreign commitments, the Middle East or even al-Qaeda. The campaign will deal almost exclusively with the economy.
The choice of Ryan, considered one of the Republican party’s most ideologically strident and influential economic wonks, is thus a clear message that Romney intends to chart a different path from the current administration for the country’s economic recovery. It is a message that the Romney campaign hopes will crystallize the difference between himself and President Barack Obama — and send the disaffected his way.
Those looking at the campaign through the eyes of Israeli or Jewish needs will find what appears to be a draw. Romney visited Israel last month, where he made a point of distancing himself from the Obama administration’s refusal to call Jerusalem Israel’s capital. But as the Obama campaign has pointed out, Romney did not offer any clear or substantive policy changes that he would implement as president.
Obama, for his part, timed the announcement of a series of US-Israel security accords and Iran sanctions to overlap with Romney’s push on Israel in order to combat headlines that might convince American Jews, particularly in the swing state of Florida, that Obama didn’t care enough about Israel’s security.
In the two weeks that followed the campaigns’ battles over Israel, polls haven’t seemed to budge much, including in Florida. While Israel’s media is currently in the grip of a government leak-fueled obsession with the question of whether Israel is about to strike Iran — and whether the US can be relied upon to thwart an Iranian bomb if Israel holds its fire — even this issue, with its potential to prompt radical regional drama, isn’t figuring in the presidential campaign.
Barring significant developments, such as an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it is likely that Israel, or any foreign policy agenda, is now tabled for the duration of the campaign. The American people are simply not listening. The Romney campaign now views foreign policy differences as a distraction from the business of hammering the president on the economy, and the Obama campaign can’t afford to get distracted from the battle to control the narrative on the country’s economic and fiscal woes.