Joshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Of all the primal foreign fears lurking in the imaginations of 2012 Republican primary voters — from economic decline in the face of a rising China to stealth Middle Eastern jihadists infiltrating the American heartland to illegal immigrants streaming across the borders to take American jobs — the specter of Europe might seem a little less threatening.
But judging from his campaign announcement and a number of subsequent statements, presumptive GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney seems to find Europe the label of choice in his attacks on Barack Obama's administration. According to Romney, the president takes "his inspiration not from the small towns and villages of New Hampshire but from the capitals of Europe;" his "European answers are not the right solution to America's challenges;" and he is "treating Israel the same way so many European countries have." On the stump, Romney has mocked Obama's economic policies as "awfully European" and described Obama's health-care overhaul as a "European"-style government takeover.
(Romney's rivals have picked up the charge as well, with Newt Gingrich describing the president as a "natural secular European socialist.")
When asked what Romney meant by repeatedly referring to Obama's policies as European, campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom replied by email that Romney "fundamentally believes that the way to get our economy moving and create jobs again is to unleash the power of our free enterprise system. President Obama is more oriented to a European style of government that provides more and more benefits through higher and higher taxes, which smothers job growth. That is a major difference between the two men that we intend to talk about frequently in this campaign."
But beyond simply describing Obama's economic policies, the "European" label carries a host of connotations about the president's values and interests, both foreign and domestic.
"It's a nice shorthand," says Michael Goldfarb, a Washington-based political consultant who worked on John McCain's 2008 campaign and, until recently, advised Sarah Palin on national security issues. "It captures the welfare state, big government, lavish public spending, and national health-care programs, all coming at the expense of the free market and a large and robust national security and national defense program."
"The equation of European as radical is an especially old" theme in U.S. political rhetoric, says David Greenberg, a professor of presidential history at Rutgers University. As far back as the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson's supporters accused the pro-centralization Federalists of harboring pro-British or even monarchist sympathies.
The use of the charge against Democrats dates to the immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, says Greenberg, and was tied to fears of radical political ideologies as well as Catholicism.
"We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion," said one speaker at a Republican convention during the 1884 race. (The negative backlash to the remark may have partially cost Republican James Blaine the election against Grover Cleveland that year.)
In modern times, Michael Dukakis was mocked in 1988 for reciting a Greek oath during his convention speech, and, in the 1992 campaign, questions were raised about a trip Bill Clinton had taken to Moscow as a young student. John Kerry was bizarrely accused of "looking French" by Republican opponents — tying in to charges that he was effete and out of touch. "Democrats are saying he's one in a million. A war hero who speaks French, isn't it more like one in a trillion?" joked Jay Leno.
On one level, the charge seems a bizarre one to level at Obama, the first ever president who is not entirely of European heritage, doesn't have a European name, had few ties to the continent before becoming president, and has been accused by opponents, since taking office, of neglecting European allies. Not to mention, of course, the elephant in the room whenever questions about Obama's identity come up is the "birther" movement and the suspicion among many Americans that the president may be Muslim or not a U.S. citizen.
"Every presidential contest is about 'he doesn't share your values, his values are different than America's.' People are just a little hypersensitive to it because Obama does have a unique background," Goldfarb says.
The "European" charge has the advantage of allowing Romney, who may eventually have to appeal to centrist voters in addition to the Republican base, to attack Obama on questions of values without appearing to pander to the extremist fringe.
"I think Romney is going for a more genteel version of this because the birther stuff — like 'rum, Romanism, and rebellion' — has been so discredited that you can't really use that now or the media will pounce on you," says Greenberg.
But calling Obama European also raises the question of whether the word really means what Republicans think it does. After all, Western Europe's "big three" countries are all ruled by conservative governments — albeit ones that are probably closer to American democrats in their political orientation. In addition, European governments are slashing budgets with a zeal that would put Paul Ryan to shame, and it was France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's David Cameron who led the NATO charge into Libya. Is Europe really "European" anymore?
"The shorthand always obscured as much as it revealed," says Peter Feaver, a former staffer on George W. Bush's National Security Council who now teaches political science at Duke University and contributes to FP's Shadow Government blog. "If it was DSK in France and Gordon Brown in Britain, it might be an easier sell."
On the other hand, this isn't really a line of defense the Obama campaign is likely to embrace. "Any time the Europeans get to the right of him, it creates a real problem, perception-wise," Goldfarb says.
The most damaging aspect of the "European" critique, and one that fits in the overall Republican narrative on Obama's foreign policy, is the suggestion that Obama takes American decline for granted and has abandoned the idea of American exceptionalism. Or as George H.W. Bush once said, describing Dukakis's worldview, "He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call somewhere out there between Albania and Zimbabwe."
Feaver feels this line of attack could resonate during the campaign.
"You don't want to say that Obama isn't patriotic or that he doesn't love America. That's not what it's about. It's that he's willing to accept an America that's much more limited, that he accepts an America that's flawed and fallen and no better than any other state," he says. "Europe does this well because it connotes both an elitism and a certain kind of has-beenism. They are the former great powers and countries that have embraced their decline."
But one wonders whether, after years of suggestions that their president is a radical, Kenyan, Muslim Marxist, voters will really be energized by the idea that actually, he's a Brussels bureaucrat.