BRUNSWICK, Ohio — It is Republican tradition to portray Europe as a socialist haven where high taxes and extravagant public spending on healthcare and retirement benefits show the folly of Democrats' big-government agenda.
But few have used the tactic as aggressively as Mitt Romney. For years, Republican crowds have applauded his scathing critique of Europe. As Europe's fiscal turmoil has posed a growing threat to the global economy, Romney has made it one of his main lines of attack against President Obama.
"He's taking us down a path towards Europe," Romney told supporters at aFather's Daybreakfast in this Cleveland suburb. "He wants us to see a bigger and bigger government, with a healthcare system run by the government. He wants to see people paying more and more in taxes."
The road to Europe, Romney said, leads to chronic high unemployment, low wage growth and massive debts that can trigger fiscal calamity.
But Romney's presentation ignores aspects of the European crisis that critics see as an illustration of how his own plans to shrink government could threaten the sputtering U.S. recovery. In Greece, Spain, Ireland and other Eurozone nations, unemployment has soared amid steep government cutbacks under austerity measures championed by Germany.
In Britain, critics of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron blame the country's recent slide back into recession on his austerity agenda of scaling back government.
Obama has rejected austerity, calling instead for new federal spending on short-term stimulus measures, such as road construction and state aid to stop layoffs of teachers and other public workers, followed by long-term budget cuts to reduce the deficit once the economy recovers.
Facing diplomatic constraints, the president has avoided comparing European austerity to Romney's economic plans.
Former President Clinton, however, has been blunt about drawing political lessons from Europe — saying that Romney's vision of smaller government would kill jobs, both private and public.
"Who would have ever thought that the Republicans would embrace the austerity and jobless policies of what they used to derisively call old Europe?" Clinton told Obama campaign donors at a fundraising dinner with the president June 4 in New York City.
"I never thought I'd live to breathe and see, here they are, saying, 'Let's do the Eurozone's economic policy. They got 11% unemployment. We can get up there if we work at it.'"
The U.S. unemployment rate, which peaked at 10% in October 2009, dropped to 8.1% in April, then bumped back up to 8.2% last month.
Romney's digs at Europe are not just economic; they are also cultural. A December 2006 blueprint for his first presidential campaign, disclosed by the Boston Globe, featured Romney attacks on "European-style socialism" — aimed especially at France, even though Jacques Chirac, the French president at the time, was a conservative.
Foreseeing a race against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, the PowerPoint blueprint included Romney saying the European Union wanted to "drag America down to Europe's standards," adding: "That's where Hillary and Dems would take us. Hillary = France."
Romney has used attacks along those lines ever since. Having lived in France as a Mormon missionary for 2 1/2 years in the 1960s, Europe is delicate turf for Romney. As head of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he spoke French for two minutes in a video to welcome volunteers. "Bonjour, je m'appelle Mitt Romney," he began.
In March, Romney mocked Europeans at a rally in Wisconsin. He accused Obama of blocking oil, coal and natural gas projects, saying, "That's of course so that you can have the applause of the Europeans for all of the wind and solar that you're using."
Other Republicans have tried to keep the debate over austerity from muddying the party's political narrative on Europe.
In a recent speech at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, House Budget Committee ChairmanPaul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said Democrats were overspending with borrowed money, just as he said European nations had.
Ryan's calls for deep tax and spending cuts, which Romney has embraced, are premised on a need for immediate steps to reduce debt — just as European austerity policies are. Yet Ryan distanced himself from the word "austerity" as he laid out his fiscal plans.
"We must avoid European-style austerity — harsh benefit cuts for current retirees and large tax increases that slow the economy to a crawl," Ryan said, noting that tax increases, too, are part of Europe's controversial debt reduction plans. "But too many in Washington are repeating Europe's mistakes instead of learning from them."
Like Ryan, Romney argues that tax cuts — and smaller government — will spur business investments that create jobs. When questioned on whether austerity might worsen unemployment, Romney has conceded that slashing government spending too fast would slow the economy.
But his emphasis remains on what he describes as the excessive spending and borrowing at the root of Europe's crisis.
"You know how many people are unemployed in Spain?" Romney asked the crowd in Ohio. "Twenty-five percent of the population. That's where European-style policies lead. I don't want to transform America into Europe."