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).

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