On September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made clear in the House of Commons that he still entertained hopes for negotiations with Hitler: “If the German Government should agree to withdraw their forces then His Majesty’s Government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier. That is to say, the way would be open to discussion between the German and Polish Governments on the matters at issue.”
The acting leader of the opposition, Arthur Greenwood, rose to reply to the prime minister. He began by saying he would be speaking on behalf of the Labour party. The prominent Conservative and opponent of appeasement Leo Amery, appalled by what Chamberlain had said, dramatically interrupted Greenwood from the Tory backbenches, shouting across the hall: “Speak for England, Arthur!”
It’s not 1939. But the clouds are darkening and storms are gathering. Americans sense the dangers we face. So in the foreign policy debate Monday night, and for the rest of the campaign, Mitt Romney’s task is not merely to speak for the Republican party, or for conservative opponents of Barack Obama. Nor is his task merely to speak to undecided suburban women. Mitt Romney’s task is to rise above partisanship and gamesmanship, above debating points and electoral calculations. Mitt Romney’s task is to speak for America.
What does this mean? It means speaking in a bipartisan way. It means appealing to the broad American tradition of international leadership, and to the actions of Harry Truman as well as those of Ronald Reagan. It means citing Joe Lieberman as well as John McCain, and the Washington Post editorial page as well as The Weekly Standard. It means praising our soldiers and our Marines, our diplomats and our intelligence professionals. It means finding something to praise in the actions of President Obama (perhaps his authorization of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden) and someone to praise among Obama’s appointees—perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her tireless travels on behalf of the nation and for stepping forward to take responsibility for the tragic failure to provide security in Benghazi.
Speaking for America also means speaking in a forward-looking way. There’s no need for Mitt Romney to fly-speck Barack Obama’s foreign policy record. Voters are aware of the deficiencies of Obama’s foreign policy—and in any case, Obama is not going to win the presidency on the strength of his foreign policy. So Romney doesn’t have to mount a detailed critique of various Obama foreign policies. He has to stipulate that all is not turning out as Obama claimed it would, that all is not well in the state of the world—and, then, even more important, he has to demonstrate that he, Romney, can be trusted to steer the American ship of state in a sounder direction and with a steadier hand. This will require setting forth the core principles he will follow—principles of American strength and leadership, of standing by our allies and of standing up to enemies—and then explaining how, in general terms, he will execute a foreign policy based on these principles.
Speaking for America also means speaking presidentially. It means speaking less as a challenger to, or as a critic and prosecutor of, the current president, and more as the next president. It means moving from being the leader of a party to the next leader of the nation. Romney should appear, by the end of the presidential debate Monday night and by the end of the campaign two weeks later, to be more presidential than the incumbent.
Mitt Romney is a combative and competitive man. But his worst moments in last week’s debates were when he became too pettily combative. His best were when he briefly stipulated the failures of President Obama’s policies, then pivoted to lay out his own agenda for the nation for the next four years and beyond.
It’s possible that adopting what might be called pre-presidential rhetoric would deprive Romney of various small victories in Monday night’s debate or on the campaign trail after that. But the point isn’t to win a debate. The point is to win the presidency. The way to win the presidency is to speak for America.