A number of surprising things in this third and final presidential debate of the 2012 presidential election.
There was more consensus on foreign policy than many expected. Mitt Romney declined an invitation to attack Barack Obama on the statements he and administration spokesmen, like Press Secretary Jay Carney and Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and Obama himself made for two weeks after 9/11/12, that the assault that resulted in the murder of our Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi was a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video. Why did Romney whiff? I’m guessing that he calculated that Obama is already hurting on this issue and that it wouldn’t help him to get into a detailed fight on this issue.
Instead he painted a broader picture of disarray in the Middle East and the world. Disarray doesn’t work in favor of an incumbent president. Romney returned to this theme again and again. He decried “the rising tide of tumult and confusion. And attacking me is not an agenda.”
At the same time Romney indicated to a surprising degree agreement with Obama on current policies. He was careful not to call for military intervention in Syria, but instead to direct aid to “good guys” among the Syrian resistance; he endorsed Obama’s use of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere; he agreed that the bulk of U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. His arguments were directed more at what Obama did during his first year or two as president, his bleak indifference to the Green Revolution in Iran, his unpreparedness for the Arab spring uprisings, his call for “daylight” between the United States and Israel. He did hit Obama for not obtaining a status of forces agreement with Iraq to maintain some troop presence there (Obama tried to slither out of this) and he hit back on Obama tellingly on his 2009 “apology tour” to the Middle East. “America hasn’t dictated to other nations. America has freed other nations from dictators.”
At the same time, Romney stressed again and again that he wanted peace and not war. “We can’t kill our way out of this problem.” Obama obviously wanted to depict him as a George W. Bush- and Dick Cheney-like neocon. Here I think Romney was aiming at winning over women voters—as he did on calling, in his first answer, for respect for women’s rights in the Muslim world. Polls have shown Romeny gaining since the Oct. 3 debate among women, both college- and non-college-educated, nationally and in key states.
Romney also touched base with some other key electoral groups. He insisted on defending his position on the auto company bankruptcies, with a look toward the 18 electoral votes of Ohio and the 16 electoral votes of Michigan. He stressed again and again the tension between Obama and Israel, with a view not only to Jewish voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but also to the evangelical Christians who are the most numerous pro-Israel voting bloc in the nation. And he managed to mention Castro as one of the antagonist foreign leaders Obama promised to sit down with, which cannot have escaped Cuban-American voters in Florida. And he got a shot in on Obama’s off-mike assurances to Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev. “Russia does continue to battle us in the UN time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone.”
In contrast to the consensus on many, though by no means all, foreign policy questions, there was clear clash when the candidates segued off into domestic policy. Here it seems to me that Romney once again had the advantage as he ticked off the dismal economic statistics. One fundamental of this election is that most voters don’t like Obama’s domestic policies and believe that they have produced a sluggish and disappointing economic recovery.
Overall I think we saw a Mitt Romney who expects to be the 45th president and a Barack Obama who has adjusted his initial foreign policy views in the light of reality. The man who promised to close Guantanamo and to make the Muslim world love America has a rather different record to defend, and Romney in effect ratified some of these adjustments. Walter Russell Mead among others have argued that there is more continuity in American foreign policy than is suggested by the arguments in campaign debates, and in different ways both Obama and Romney seemed to be conceding the force of this argument. The Romney we saw in this debate seemed to be thinking more about how he would act as president and less than in some previous statements as how he would campaign against the incumbent. Obama seemed to be grasping at areas where they now seemed to be in agreement. The polling data suggests that Romney is now ahead and is likely to be elected. I think we saw two candidates who were thinking not only about the campaign but also about the transition period which will occur if Romney is elected and Obama is denied a second term.