A specter is haunting the U.S. That, at least, is what the Republicans seem to believe in this election season. And the specter has a name: Europe.
During the Republican debate a week ago Saturday, President Barack Obama said Mitt Romney wants to turn the U.S. into a "European welfare state." At a weekend appearance in New Hampshire, Romney said, "I don't believe in Europe. I believe in America."
In an election year overshadowed by the threats posed by the European economy and concerns about the break-up of the European common currency, it is a message that Romney has been delivering every chance he gets. And he's not alone. Europe-bashing has become an important stump-speech cornerstone for the entire Republican field. The message, as Romney never tires of delivering it, is clear: "I don't think Europe is working in Europe. I know it won't work here."
Negative portrayals of Europe are, of course, by no means a novelty when it comes to American political campaigns. Candidates, particularly Republicans, have long blasted their opponents for being a bit too cuddly with Europe. In 2004, when George W. Bush was battling John Kerry in his re-election campaign, Europe played an outsized role, primarily because France and Germany had declined to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Because Kerry spoke fluent French, he was portrayed as the "French candidate."
A Club of Losers
Indeed, the Kerry campaign did its best to distance its candidate from his French connection. A distant French cousin of Kerry's was asked to avoid speaking with the press. And Kerry himself made a point of saying that he preferred American bottled water to Evian, the French brand.
This time around, though, with Europe deep in crisis, the Continent has become an even more prominent element of Republicans' stump speeches. With high state debt, high unemployment in several countries and a sluggish euro-zone economy, the European Union is seen as a club of losers.
"You want to see America after the Obama administration is through," arch-conservative candidate Rick Santorum said on the campaign trail last week, "just read up on Greece." Santorum is fond of the sentence, and often replaces that country depending on the relative economic situation in Europe. Portugal likewise gets mentioned frequently, as do Italy and Ireland. Lately, France too has been making an appearance.
The U.S. president, in other words, is merely a European in disguise. That is the message the Republicans would like to convey. Newt Gingrich, in particular, never tires of calling Obama a "socialist." Obama has a "European social democratic vision," says Romney, who claimed recently that per capita income in the U.S. was "50 percent more" than in Europe. And Ron Paul, perhaps the most extreme of a Republican field full of extremists, advocates pulling U.S. troops out of Europe, in part so that America is no longer in the position of subsidizing "socialist Germany."
Such attacks would, of course, be ridiculous were they not so effective at a time when the economic outlook in the U.S. is far from rosy, particularly given the danger that the euro-zone debt crisis could put a quick stop to America's fragile economic recovery.