Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rapid Response to the 3rd US Presidential Debate

Sigh.... Good enough, I guess....

This article is brought to you by the letter "B" for Big Bird, Binders, and Bayonet.

Okay, first of all, this is probably the worst foreign policy debate ever. Both candidates spent a lot of time talking about domestic politics, ranging from class size, teachers, Solyndra, and the auto-bailout. Virtually everything about foreign policy is collared back to domestic policy; poor Bob Schieffer had to beg both Obama and Romney to get back to foreign policy -- though he managed to keep things under control, probably because each candidate didn't want to be seen as behaving like a bully bent on elder abuse.

The debate did not discuss much of substance. What would both Romney and Obama would do regarding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship? Or what about India? China was discussed seemingly as an afterthought, more to bash it for "silent trade war" and protectionism, for a grand total of... 5 minutes? No mention at all about the problems in South China Sea or the current Sino-Japanese spat. Obama's mention of America's pivot to Asia is also worth mentioning here, considering that U.S. embassies everywhere were strictly prohibited from mentioning the word "pivot."

[Here's what my contact at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta had to say when I ribbed him/her about this: "Ha! He's the boss, he gets to say whatever he wants!"]

Anyway, there are several reasons for this lack of foreign policy in a debate on foreign policy:

First, in an attempt to limit the chances of alienating any part of the electorate, both candidates geared their stated foreign policy positions toward the center of the political spectrum. This meant that there wasn't much daylight in the stances staked out by Romney and Obama. Everyone was back to the usual political correctness: Israel is good; Iran is bad; China is malicious; Syria is a mess, but we can't send troops there; and we won in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, there were some policy differences, such as whether to keep troops in Iraq and the final date of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, but they were so nuanced that most voters won't care or find them too technical.

Second, with his polling numbers improving, Romney seemed to settle down to a "no drama" mode. Romney might be tempted to hit Obama again on Benghazi, but having been licked once in the last week's debate, he seemed to decide to play it safe. He did throw in some jabs, such as Obama's "apology tour," which led to sharp retort from Obama, but overall Romney seemed to happily absorb Obama's attacks.

Even though snap polls from CBS, CNN, and PPP showed that Obama won the debate because Obama was aggressive, it is doubtful if the debate will end Romney's momentum. In fact, the third debate was no longer a game changer, unlike the first one. The first debate greatly boosted Romney's chances because it showed to the Republicans that he had the fire in his belly. It also showed the independents that Romney was not as bad as Obama painted him to be.

As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, tweeted, "Shocker: All D's think O won, all R's think R won." At this point, Romney didn't need to be aggressive, as he only needed to court women and make sure he didn't make stupid mistakes.

Surprisingly, even though Romney was not aggressive, the contrast between his and Obama's  performance was striking. Romney behaved as a sober, presidential alternative, while Obama actually looked desperate to score points, hitting Romney straight from the start, because at this point, Obama has more to lose compared to Romney, as Romney right now holds the momentum. At several points in the debate, Romney even managed to needle Obama, "Attacking me is not talking about an agenda."

Ann Althouse got it right:
Here's my bottom line: By adopting a strategy of only modestly challenging Obama and mostly seeming the same as Obama on foreign policy, Romney neutralized foreign policy as an issue and kept the election focus on the economy. He even refocused the discussion on the economy whenever he could over the course of the evening. The election is about the economy, and nothing either candidate said tonight will change that. The only way Obama really could have won is if Romney had tumbled into some kind of exploitable gaffe. That didn't happen.
Dan Drezner also weighed in in the same vein:
For the past month, Mitt Romney had been chipping away at Obama’s foreign policy record. Tonight he seemed to want to emulate it. His clear hope is that the performance was good enough for voters to be comfortable with him as a sober and prudent commander-in-chief. That way, they can ignore Obama’s critique and happily forget about international relations for another four years. We’ll find out over the next few days if he succeeded.
Finally, considering that Romney is seen as very weak on foreign policy (remember his disastrous world tour this summer), it could be chalked up as a "mission accomplished" when almost every pundit evaluating the debate for the New York Times thinks that Obama didn't blow Romney out of the water (though, no surprise that the New York Times editorial somehow decided that Romney totally lost it).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rapid Response to the 2nd U.S. Presidential Debate

While it's premature to call the first Romney-Obama debate a "game changer," it certainly has tightened the race for president. It's now Mitt Romney who is trending upward. His supporters are energized and the polls are inching in his favor. The national polls reveal a statistical tie, and Romney has either closed the gap or overtaken President Obama in key swing states.

Last week's veep debate seems to have jolted democrats out of the worry, even panic, that manifested in the aftermath of the first Romney-Obama clash. While widely panned among conservatives, Joe Biden's showing, full of feistiness and gesticulations, generally satisfied liberals. To them, it was the kind of performance they desired from the president in the first debate: Biden was assertive, lively, willing to defend the administration's record. For the liberal base, Biden set the bar for Obama to reach in subsequent debates.

Of course, Obama won't demonstrate anywhere near the combativeness that Biden showed in his debate. That said, coming into tonight, there was now a general expectation, among liberals and conservatives and those in between, that Obama would be far less passive and much more lucid than he was in the first presidential debate. Put simply, while Biden staunched the declining support and polling numbers, it was now up to Obama to re-energize the liberal base. The pressure was on Obama to do well tonight.

Fast forward to tonight. What happened?

Well, as many of you likely expect, it was a debate full of vagaries, light on specifics, full of exaggeration, and false depictions of the other side's record and policy positions. It heavily focused on domestic issues, especially the American economy. Other than short discussions on China and Libya, the debate hardly touched on foreign policy.

Mitt Romney delivered a solid performance. Understandably, he prioritized hammering Obama on unemployment, the lack of job growth, and the prolonged stagnation in the U.S. economy. Romney is a consistently good debater. It's difficult to imagine him getting whitewashed in any debate. But this time, in contrast to the last debate, on Twitter and the blogs, I've already seen many more negative reactions to Romney. Words like "arrogant," "diminished," "petty," and "not presidential" have been bandied about. I will be looking to see if these descriptions stick, if they are echoed more loudly in various media outlets in the coming days.

Clearly, unlike the last debate, tonight, Obama was forceful and aggressive and well prepared. He looked Romney in the eye, even directed barbs directly to Romney. I foresee liberals as pleased with tonight's debate, believing that Obama showed that he's willing to fight for his job, that he wants to win as much as they do. Obama was probably aided a bit by the debate format, the town hall-style debate. He's very comfortable in this setting, and usually does a good job of connecting with audiences, which is essential in these kinds of debates.

One critique of both presidential contenders, something I suspect that some readers noticed: it was more than a little irritating to see both Obama and Romney constantly butting in, begging for more time, trying to get in the last word.

Most interesting comment of the night: Obama's take on the differences between Romney and George W. Bush:
You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.
George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. And I think that’s a mistake.
My scorecard: Obama on points. But because Obama performed so much better than he did in the last debate, it will interesting to see how this debate is spun. My colleague Yohanes Sulaiman speculated on Twitter that the mainstream media will call the debate "Obama's comeback." It's a very plausible, reasonable projection.

What do you think? Who won tonight? How do you think the debate will be spun?

(For the full transcript of tonight's debate, click here.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rapid Response to the 1st U.S. Presidential Debate

Here is a very quick, very brief take on tonight's debate between former Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

Coming into the debate, Obama had the wind at his back. The economy has been on the upswing, and the polls--both in particular "swing states" and nationwide--have been increasingly in Obama's favor.

It's clear that Obama decided to play it safe. He refused to attack Romney. I don't doubt that many liberals right now are frustrated, even angry, that he failed to mention, among other things, Bain Capital or Romney's comments about the 47%. (In fact, turn on MSNBC right now and you will get a flavor of how upset Obama's base is. Some of the anchors even look mournful.) Obama's plan, I'm sure, was to play it conservatively, to sit on his lead, so to speak. Additionally, it's likely that Obama's advisers told him that going on the attack would not look presidential to U.S. voters.

However, Obama's approach to the debate risked leaving him susceptible on several fronts. And that's what happened. He looked passive and defensive. Repeatedly, he refused to defend his record, rebut Romney's attacks, or ask for more time. In my view, that's rather astonishing.

It was Romney who set the debate's agenda. He appeared energetic and aggressive. And although Romney was vague on policy details and made several dubious claims and critiques (both about his plans and Obama's record and plans), he still passed an important eye test. He looked like a leader. Romney commanded the stage. He consistently made eye contact with Obama, while the latter often had his head down writing notes. Watch the debate with the sound off for a few minutes; it will offer an interesting and revealing view.

Line of the night: Mitt Romney: "I just don't know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the -- at the kitchen table, and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people."

My scorecard: In boxing terms, Romney won on points. But based on optics, Romney won by KO.