The final debate of the 2012 presidential election cycle is now officially in the books. I’ll pause while you exhale and share in a collective -Thank God.….
President Obama and Governor Romney joined moderator Bob Schieffer at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida Monday night for a debate that was supposed to be devoted entirely to foreign policy. I’ll let you guess how that turned out.
Both candidates seemed bound and determined to take the debate in the direction most advantageous to his campaign. Questions were but unfortunate obstacles to the talking point each wanted to address; and the end result was a foreign policy debate largely free of actual debating on issues related to foreign policy. There were, of course, other points of contention; but on most major issues, both men seemed to be playing from the same deck of cards.
Since the moderator is always a subject of conversation the day after these debates, it is worth mentioning before we get to the debate specifics that I believe Bob Schieffer did a rather exceptional job. To his credit, he took a far more objective tone than he does on his Sunday political talk show and guided the men from issue to issue with ease and without the talking over one another that was a commonplace in the first two debates. There were moments, but they were far more rare than they were in the previous events. If I was grading the moderators from best to worst, Schieffer clearly takes the top spot with Crowley bringing up the rear.
Unlike the previous debates, what stood out to me most Monday night was not any one issue, the role of the moderator, the mannerisms and expressions of either candidate, or even the back-and-forth between them. It was the commitment Governor Romney made to stay above the fray and stay out of seemingly endless skirmishes with the president over talking points of the kind that dominate television advertisements. It was as if someone showed Governor Romney a set of polling data – he genuinely believed to be accurate – that showed him as the front-runner in nearly every contested state.
It was clear from the first question when he refused to take the bait and go hard on Benghazi that Romney believed he had more to lose than did the president. And the president seemed to echo that sentiment. The president attacked and Governor Romney refused to counter back. He stayed on message, shared his plan for moving forward, and offered a reasonable critique of the president’s record without getting into a rerun of the last debate.
There will be some that will say Governor Romney was too passive. Frankly, I’d imagine that criticism will come from the Left and the Right. I heard NBC’s Chuck Todd say just after the debate that Governor Romney was practicing a “prevent defense.” He said to use a football metaphor, Romney may have just “prevented” himself from winning. I’m sure a simple search of many of the sites friendly to this one will also find a similar charge.
As partisans, we obviously want our candidates to draw distinctions between their own policy proposals and we want them to make the most passionate case possible for why their policies should ultimately be the policy of choice. As someone who wholeheartedly wants change at the top, I am certainly one longing for a message that the next four years will be decidedly different than the four we have just lived. That said, I genuinely believe that partisans will not decide this election.
Independents, undecideds, and disenfranchised Obama ’08 supporters will decide this election. Yes, 5-7% of the American electorate will choose for the rest of us our next president. Going a step further, 5-7% of voters in 5-7 states will probably determine our next president. I believe Governor Romney was speaking to that small population with most of his answers Monday night.
The only evidence you need can be found by merely looking at the points of the debate where Governor Romney directly responded to the president’s attack lines. He followed the president into a discussion of Education policy – where he reminded the electorate that Massachusetts ranked #1 by standard measures during his time as governor. He rebutted the president’s assertion that he would have done nothing while the auto industry went under. And he doubled down on North American energy independence which will continue to offer a safe and effective means of reliance on “controversial” sources like coal. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia… were you listening?
When the debate actually focused on the subject matter at hand – foreign policy – Governor Romney moderated his tone decidedly in comparison to that which he and his surrogates have offered on the campaign trail. In what can only be characterized as a clear attempt to brush off the “reckless” moniker the president’s camp has tried to place on him, Governor Romney endeavored to demonstrate a firm grasp of foreign policy without getting bogged down with back-benching the president’s every move and decision. The result was a calm critique of the president’s record and a path forward that does not promise to put the country on the verge of new wars in Iran, Syrian, and elsewhere; or usher in a second wave of American interventionism around the globe.
And because he failed to go down that road, the President not only looked frustrated; but absolutely dejected. It was as if his entire debate prep was devoted to countering Romney’s foreign policy rebuke. When one was not forthcoming, the President appeared to turn to petty attacks rather than being able to highlight a list of foreign policy achievements. I’ll leave to your better judgment if that was a result of Romney’s approach or a lack of actual achievements.
At times during this debate I stepped back and asked myself if the average viewer knew nothing of these candidates’ previous positions or records on matters of foreign policy, which one would they consider the hawk and which one would they consider the dove? The last 30 years have told us that the Republican’s typically the hawk; but if I knew absolutely nothing about these men, I’d be inclined to call it a draw. Neither and neither, if you will. While a softer tone may frighten some on the Right, who among us would argue that such a development is not far more frightening to the Left?
Again, if I was judging these candidates based solely on this debate… I’d take away two thoughts regarding each candidate.
First, President Obama. 1) He clearly sees as his greatest achievements in this area – ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden. (What could Governor Romney say to criticize the president on either of these aside from whether or not deal was sought to leave troops in Iraq after the official pullout?) 2) His only “plan” going forward is to continue sanctions on Iran and shift the focus from nation-building abroad to nation-building at home. (Again, where is Governor Romney going to disagree. He agrees with sanctions on Iran and who is going to argue with the second talking point?)
Now, Governor Romney. 1) He’s a peace through strength Reagan Republican. Boost military capacity and capability, strengthen the Air Force and the Navy, but hope the greatest deterrent to future aggression is perceived strength rather than demonstrated aggression. On the last prong there, be the anti-GW-Bush if you will. 2) Strengthen America’s ties to friends and allies like Israel and tie foreign assistance to nations like Pakistan to actual results on the ground.
Having said that, are either of these men those men?
I suppose that will be the foreign policy question of this election; and it won’t be one for partisans like me to ultimately decide.
My gut tells me a few things about both these men. President Obama came into office with a vision for how he thought the world worked, could work, or should work. After an “apology tour” and the sudden realization that talking to hostile actors generated nothing but further resentment, a weaker standing in the global community, and increased aggression from rogue regimes and non-state entities; he moved to the Right. He realized the world is not what he hoped it could be. It was nasty, cruel, and brutish; and very much in need of a strong stabilizing figure like that of the United States. I think, at times, he’s drifted back to his old hopes and dreams. See the Iranian uprising before the Arab Spring and see his leading from behind posture some two years later if you need a reference. That is if his internationalist approach toward Iran doesn’t do the trick.
What does that mean going forward? I believe he has every intention of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran. I do. That’s also why I believe he will eventually agree to have one-on-one negotiations with them – if he hasn’t already done so. I believe once those fail, Iran is emboldened by its increased stature in the global community, and Israel finally reaches a place where it feels its future is in jeopardy; he will be forced to act when Israel decides to go it alone. If you were paying attention during this debate, you probably noticed two things: 1) The president first shot down the NY Times report about negotiations with Iran and then hinted that it was a path he’d consider clearly hoping Gov Romney would take the bait and agree. 2) The president never answered the question about the phone call from Israel informing them a strike on Iran was underway. Governor Romney said it would be a phone call they’d never have to make.
Governor Romney is a moderate. That’s what he was in the Republican primary and that’s what he is today. I may not love it, my fellow right wingers may absolutely hate it, but that is who he is. Plain and simple. He believes growing our economy is job #1, priority #1, and issue #1. I think he views commitments like that in Afghanistan as little more than significant drags on that objective. He sees debt and deficits as substantial obstacles to preparedness for future threats around the world. He sees them as the greatest threat to our national security. On that front, I wholeheartedly agree.
I also believe Governor Romney knows full well that women will decide this election and they want nothing to do with continued wars, new interventions, and talk of either. They want to hear about jobs, education, and the economy in this election; and they’d rather change the channel than listen to two grown men shout over one another.
And because I trust my gut and because I believe Governor Romney was speaking to the 5-7% of undecided voters in 5-7 states Monday night, I do believe he won the last debate of this presidential cycle convincingly. He was all smiles as the debate went on and the president looked increasingly frustrated. In fairness to the president, foreign policy has long been a strong suit of the Right; not the Left. His strengths on this evening and his successes during his tenure can only earn him favor with those on the Right that have already disqualified him on nearly every other issue. And because of that, it was always going to be Governor Romney’s night. The only chance President Obama had was to disqualify him as a potential Commander-in-Chief. And having failed to do so, he conceded the night to his opponent.
Full transcript of the debate here…