Mitt Romney’s six-day international trip ended as it began, with the candidate’s attempt at a show of statesmanship clouded, this time by an aide’s confrontation with reporters at a war memorial in the Polish capital.
Romney was in Warsaw today to praise “free enterprise” as a model for Europe to solve its debt crisis. “As some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to look to Poland,” he said in a speech at the University of Warsaw.
When reporters shouted questions to Romney at the war memorial before his speech, an aide asked reporters to “show some respect here.” As the media pressed on, aide Rick Gorka said, “Kiss my ass” and “shove it.”
The Romney campaign sought to change the subject, announcing a new mobile application it will use to announce his vice presidential pick. The “Mitt’s VP” news didn’t distract from the trip and Romney acknowledged the critical news coverage in an interview with Fox News.
“There will be some in the fourth estate” who “are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy,” he said. He suggested the media will “try to find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”
The episode -- for which the Romney aide later apologized to reporters -- generated a new series of cable news headlines back home near the close of a three-nation tour that started with Romney questioning security preparations for the Olympics in London and included a stop in Jerusalem where the Republican presidential candidate spoke of the Jewish people’s “culture” as a reason for their economic success relative to Palestinians.
“We’ve now seen Governor Romney on the world stage,” said Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. “He set the lowest expectations imaginable for the foreign trip. He both offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region in the world.”
Romney’s Warsaw address, an opportunity to refocus his message in the final hours of his tour, cited Poland’s opposition to “the false promise of a government-dominated economy” as an inspiration to Americans. The country’s economy expanded 4.3 percent in 2011, among the fastest in the European Union.
Romney, who has refused to publicly discuss the criticism of his trip, has struggled to overcome the distractions that have undermined his foreign policy message. Even as he gave his speech today, television reporters were on camera live from Warsaw describing the gaffes and tensions with press.
Romney aides said the trip will have little impact on voters at home. While foreign travels are a good way to help candidates bulk up their resumes in preparation for the presidential debates this fall, U.S. voters are far more concerned about the country’s slow economic growth, said strategist Stuart Stevens.
“People understand that big elections are about big things,” he said.
Yesterday, the former Massachusetts governor and private-equity executive was criticized by Palestinian officials for comments he made suggesting cultural reasons for Israel’s economy outpacing that of the West Bank.
That followed another episode at the start of his trip, when Romney’s questioning of the U.K’s readiness to manage the Olympic Games riled his hosts in London. He later clarified his remarks, explaining that it was hard to hold a mistake-free Olympics and that he was confident this year’s would be a success.
Today, Romney didn’t try to explain his remarks. Instead, he focused on his visit to Poland -- the final stop of his tour, and the leg where he received the warmest reception.
“Our friendship spans the centuries and is built by our common values and love of freedom,” he told reporters after a morning meeting with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.
In his speech today, he subtly tried to link the Polish economy to the election at home.
“The world should pay close attention to the transformation of Poland’s economy,” Romney said. “A march toward economic liberty and smaller government has meant a march toward higher living standards, a strong military that defends liberty at home and abroad, and an important and growing role on the international stage.”
Though he has vowed not to criticize the president while abroad, Romney frequently attacks Obama for mismanaging the economy.
Hundreds of cheering Poles greeted Romney yesterday when he arrived at the old town hall in Gdansk, a port town that was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement.
“This is like a rally in the U.S.,” said Romney’s wife, Ann.
Several hours later, Romney received an endorsement from former President Lech Walesa, praise that could resonate with Polish-American voters in swing states like Ohio.
“I wish you to be successful,” Walesa said through a translator. “Governor Romney -- be successful!”
The Solidarity movement issued a statement after those remarks, disavowing Walesa’s personal endorsement and criticizing Romney’s business career as marked by anti-union, anti-worker actions. Andrzey Adamczyk, head of Solidarity’s International Department, said in a statement that the group was “in no way involved” in the Walesa-Romney meeting.
Romney has called Russia, Poland’s historic enemy, America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and accused Obama of a “sudden abandonment” of Poland because the president delayed - - and then revived -- plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
In his speech today, Romney criticized Russian leaders, saying their “once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered.”
Poles, who see missile defense as a bulwark against a possible return of Russian aggression, had invested great effort in agreeing to the plan proposed by President George W. Bush. The White House announcement that it wouldn’t move forward with the plan came on Sept. 17, 2009, 70 years to the day after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland two weeks after Nazi Germany attacked from the west.
Walesa told Poland’s news station TVN24 that he was deeply disappointed.
“The Americans have always only taken care of their own interests, and they have used everyone else,” Walesa said, according to Der Spiegel.
A month later, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would proceed with a smaller project in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, on the same basic schedule. There is lingering concern about the missile system because of uncertainty about U.S. defense budget cuts, said Fran Burwell, director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
Romney is trying to capitalize on those strains, as well as on concerns that a U.S. defense tilt toward Asia would reduce Eastern Europe’s importance to Washington decision makers.