Just as aspiring judges ought to possess the quality known as “judicial temperament,” a would-be president should have certain obvious attributes of mind and character. Two incidents tested Mitt Romney this week – and both times, his ambition overwhelmed his judgment.
On Thursday morning, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conducted tense negotiations with the Chinese government over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who had sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, Romney seized on rumors of American capitulation to launch a political salvo: “If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration,” he said at a rally in Virginia. “We are a place of freedom here and around the world and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack.”
Clearly, Romney had no knowledge or experience with which to judge the situation unfolding in Beijing, which concluded much differently than his harsh remarks suggested. In fact, both the Chinese and the Americans were seeking a face-saving solution that was achieved when New York University (whose president John Sexton happens to be a close friend of Secretary Clinton and is well-connected in Beijing as well) offered a fellowship to Chen, which the government had agreed he could accept.
The result, of course, was that Romney looked either “foolish” or “very foolish,” depending on whether the assessment came from Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol or from Abby Huntsman Livingston, the daughter of former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who lived in the Beijing embassy when her father served as US ambassador to the People’s Republic.
But Romney’s error was worse than a misguided political tactic. It showed a woeful ignorance of diplomacy and a callow opportunism that don’t befit the next occupant of the Oval Office. To endanger Chen’s safety and the prestige of the United States in those difficult hours was an act of weak character as well as stupidity.
Earlier in the week, Romney revealed another potential weakness when he let religious right activists bully his campaign over its hiring of an openly gay foreign policy staffer, Richard Grenell. After the campaign froze him out of press briefings to quell the controversy, Grenell finally quit on Tuesday, with no effort by the presumptive nominee to persuade him to stay. If Grenell was qualified to hold the sensitive post of foreign policy spokesman, why did Romney cave instantly to demands from radio hosts and other ignorant bigots to let him go? For many years, various ethnic, sexual, and religious prejudices hobbled American intelligence and diplomacy – a national flaw for which the United States paid dearly over and over again in bad policy based on inadequate information.
Meanwhile, his longtime critics on the far right are laughing at Romney. Bryan Fischer, right-wing extremist and leader of the American Family Association, openly gloated: “Let me ask you this question, people have raised this question,” he said Friday on his radio show. “If Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, co-opted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin? How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around by a yokel like me?”
Those are indeed the questions that linger after Romney’s performance this week.