A tour of London is becoming an unpleasant rite of passage for American politicians with presidential ambitions.
Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana traveled to the United Kingdom recently to try to burnish their foreign policy credentials. Next up is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is in London this week as his early-state polling numbers back home have started to tick up.
They’ve all found that traveling across the pond can be more like sailing into a perfect storm.
For Christie, his troubles stemmed from a puzzlingly ambiguous comment about vaccinations that unleashed a firestorm of disapproval and quickly had the governor’s aides scrambling to clarify his initial remarks. For Jindal, it was his condemnation of so-called “no-go” zones and “non-assimilation” of immigrants in Europe that had his critics agitated even after he was back on American soil.
Walker wasn’t able to entirely escape controversy. He punted on a question about evolution on Wednesday, saying it’s not a topic for politicians to discuss – an answer that could revive scrutiny of how some Republicans interpret science.
Within hours of declining to share his thoughts on the theory of evolution, Walker found himself clarifying his views.
“Both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand,” he said in a statement.
Walker’s blunder was a testament to just how much scrutiny U.S. elected officials face when they go abroad.
Lyndon Olson, former U.S. ambassador to Sweden under Bill Clinton, said while overseas trips serve the important purpose of demonstrating a political candidate’s foreign policy bona fides, they are often “a double-edged sword.”
“There have been candidates in the past that have gone abroad, both Democrats and Republicans, that have made fools out of themselves because they were so intentional about getting press coverage and the optics of it were so important to them,” said Olson, who is now chairman for U.S. and Europe for the international public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies.
Walker seemed determined avoid the pitfalls that his fellow Republican governors have fallen victim to recently by trying as hard as he can to stick to business.
There are no flashy photo-ops planned for Walker’s four-day jaunt. Instead, the governor’s schedule is exactly what one would expect a trade mission to look like: a business roundtable, meetings with U.K. business and government officials aimed at boosting foreign investments in Wisconsin and factory tours later in the week.
Rather than taking the media spotlight multiple times, the governor’s public remarks were limited to just one major speech on Wednesday. And unlike Christie, Walker has chosen not to have a traveling press corps following him around in London.
“It truly is a business trip aimed at increasing foreign direct investment in Wisconsin, not a photo op,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.
Speaking at the Chatham House on Wednesday, an international affairs think tank located several blocks south of the famous Piccadilly Circus, Walker stuck closely to the script and exercised strict discipline.
In a brief speech, Walker touted economic growth in the Badger State and highlighted the long-standing “special relationship” between the U.S. and the host country. In a Q&A session that followed, Walker repeatedly dodged answering questions that begged for newsy sound bites, insisting that it wouldn’t be appropriate to diverge from the official purpose of his trade and investment tour.
“I just think for me, commenting on foreign policy, or in this case economic policy, in a country where you’re a visitor is not the politest” thing to do, Walker said when one reporter asked for his thoughts on whether Britain should leave the European Union.
And presented with several other foreign policy questions, including whether he believes the U.K. should take a tougher stance against ISIS or if the U.S. should arm Ukrainian rebels, Walker insisted on deferring to President Barack Obama.
It might be “old-fashioned,” Walker quipped, but “I just don’t think it’s wise to undermine the president of your own country” when traveling abroad.
The governor even lamented the media’s polarizing role in the U.S., pointing to recent press coverage of Christie’s vaccine comments as an example of reporters’ attraction to controversy over substance.
“There’s this almost magnetic thing where they go to whatever’s the most glaring headline,” Walker said, after declining to pass judgment on Christie’s remarks.
Even for the most practiced American politician, the U.K. presents a tricky set of landmines. One of the most dangerous is the famously theatrical and unforgiving British press.
Mitt Romney’s widely panned comments questioning London’s preparedness for the Olympics during a visit to that city won him unflattering nicknames like “Mitt the Twit” and “party-pooper.” Christie’s London swing was billed a “disastrous performance” by the Daily Mail.
“The British press as everyone is aware is more prone to sensationalism, and it’s also not familiar with these candidates so they’re looking for an easy headline,” said one former Romney foreign policy adviser, who recalled how difficult it was for Romney to ditch the negative tabloid headlines after his famous Olympics flap.
“That one remark colored the rest of the trip and set a narrative that was hard for the campaign to fight against,” the ex-Romney adviser added.
The U.K. can be a particularly challenging place for members of the GOP because the party’s ideological views do not all fit neatly into the that country’s political conversation.
Advisers to past GOP presidential candidates also point out that the country has become a more complicated destination for Republicans than in past years, when former President George W. Bush had a close friendship with former U.K. Prime Minster Tony Blair. Now, Prime Minister David Cameron is a friendly ally to President Barack Obama – so much so that Cameron even hired Obama’s former campaign manager, Jim Messina, to advise the Conservative Party.
During Romney’s 2012 visit to London, video of London Mayor Boris Johnson, also a member of the Conservative Party, rallying a crowd to chant Obama’s famous campaign slogan “Yes we can!” became a YouTube sensation.
The pitfalls of London have some Republican strategists wondering if the potential rewards of the customary U.K. tour is even worth the risk.
“I think the benefit of visiting London is rapidly diminishing,” said one Republican foreign policy strategist. “It’s too bad Australia isn’t closer because that would be a worthwhile visit.”