“Welcome to the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida …” said the moderator, another ancient white guy, Bob Schieffer. Good god, Boca Raton has a university? I thought it was all retirement and golf, like the rest of Florida. But no, here we were for the final presidential debate of the campaign, on foreign policy.
It turned out to be a very strange debate indeed, with Mitt Romney going out of his way to agree with President Barack Obama, support his positions on a whole range of foreign policy initiatives from Libya to Afghanistan, and trying to stay away from a hawkish image that would have tied him to the Bush era. Both men were desperate to try and get foreign policy questions back onto domestic questions — and if possible try and tie foreign policy questions back to domestic questions and economic policies in swing states. Romney had more energy, and effusiveness; Obama once again sounded physically tired, and had an edge of hoarseness to his voice, but also sharp and on point.
Post-debate commentators across the cable-sphere appeared to be giving the debate to Obama narrowly on points, but it was also suggested that Romney had scored a victory by sounding equally, or even more, presidential than the President. The CBS instant poll of uncommitted voters gave it commandingly to Obama by a huge margin, saying he won the debate by 53% to 23% — a huge margin. CNN had it narrower, scoring it 48% to 40% for Obama. Inevitably, but dispiritingly, the question of Israel occupied an absurdly disproportionate amount of the debate.
Surprisingly, although the first question concerned Libya and the destruction of the Benghazi consulate, Romney took a pass on the chance to really hammer home the idea that the Obama administration had lied about and bungled the issue. Romney congratulated Obama on the Bin Laden kill and attacking Al-Qaeda, but said that Obama’s policies had lost ground in the Middle East, and rounded it out by saying, audaciously, that “we can’t kill our way to safety”.
Bizarrely this painted Obama as the hawk, who honed in on Libya as a form of successful US involvement, and went on the attack against Romney, saying that his positions had been “all over the map” and managed to pin Romney on Bin Laden, on Iraq and on getting Gaddafi as “mission creep”, and finally going after him as rating Russia as a greater enemy than Islamist terrorism. Romney was also in a tricky position on Syria, wanting to avoid giving the impression that he would put boots on the ground. Thus he had to agree with Obama’s argument that the country was complex, the civil war messy, and was reduced to vague noises about doing more to help the resistance. Obama used the Syria question to pivot his argument saying that “we’ve tried nation building overseas, let’s try and do some nation building at home”.
That then opened up a six minute or so passage in which any pretence that this was a foreign policy debate was abandoned, and both candidates pitched narrowly on economic issues, making a series of naked bids — on manufacturing, on Ohio, on teachers, on teachers in Ohio, and on and on. Romney then brought it back to military strength and blundered, diving into specificities about a reduction in ships “to our lowest level since 1917”. “Well in 1917 we also had a lot more horses and bayonets than we do today governor,” Obama responded, pointing out to Romney that we had things called aircraft carriers, and so on, and that what was needed was a smarter force, designed in concert with military leaders. The “horses and bayonets” line got a big laugh, and though it is on a somewhat tangential issue to most people’s concerns, it resonated with the idea that Romney doesn’t really look at the big picture, and tends to jump on gotcha moments, which then get him. Together with his “binders of women” remark, it has done that worst of debate snafus, made him look odd in a manner difficult to defend.
As the debate progressed Romney had to concede much — perhaps too much. He had to concede that he agreed with Obama’s handling on Egypt and the demise of Mubarak, and he even conceded on Afghanistan — amazingly saying that he supported the 2014 timetable pullout, something that the GOP has hitherto used as an example of Obama’s naivete. At some point, like a stand-up comedian on Letterman, Romney simply hit the middle of his stump speech — trade with Latin America, balanced budget, I’ve got a plan, etc etc and ran with that for a few minutes.
However, while vast tracts of the world went unmentioned for most of the debate, the intertwined areas were Iran and Israel. Obama’s pitch was that stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons has necessarily involved building a global coalition — Romney tried to paint that as weakness and tied that to the President’s coolness towards Israel. Obama had a good comeback — “governor when I went to Israel I didn’t go with donors and fundraisers, I went to Vad Yashem, the Holocaust museum, because I wanted to think about the nature of evil”. It was an odd oblique move, but it seemed to be effective, giving some content to the idea of Israel, and getting out of the “I’m more Israeli than you are” thang.
Finally the moderator got onto China for two minutes of discussion about the largest country in the world, with, by some measures, the largest GDP in the world by 2016. Romney made his general pitch about the Chinese being terrible cheats and how America could compete if they didn’t steal technology and “manipulate” currency, etc etc. Obama used the question to neatly turn it onto the domestic and charge that if “we’d done what you suggested on the auto industry governor, we wouldn’t be exporting cars to China, they’d be selling them to us”.
There was then a dogfight on what Romney had said as to whether GM and Chrysler should have been supported by government funds. The consensus is that Romney just flat-out lied in this exchange, and if it’s clear-cut enough it may become the subject of some telling ads. Romney didn’t help himself by ending on some dire hippie note about wanting to create a “peaceful planet”, a moment which filled the Fox News gang with something approaching despair. After the fact there was no one really willing to argue that Romney won it — even less than after the second debate, though your correspondent once again felt that Obama was less effective than both sides were scoring him.
The general consensus was that Romney’s new paisley patchouli-flavoured foreign pol was designed to appeal to women, with the usual pseudo-science applied as to how they would respond to hawkishness or doveishness. But the general appearance was defensive and unassertive, and Romney and his team may well live to regret the strategy. If nothing else, it made everyone on Team Obama feel a whole lot better. Let’s go play some golf.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.