Mitt Romney and Barack Obama came into the third presidential debate trying to do two different things. Romney was attempting the foreign equivalent of the Denver debate – positioning himself as an acceptable choice to the center, a strategy he signaled in his first remarks when he insisted, “We can’t kill ourselves out of this mess.” Obama was trying to win a debate about foreign policy.
Romney hit all the familiar talking points — the fictitious Obama “apology tour,” Iran being “four years closer” to obtaining a nuclear weapon, weakness and disarray across the globe. But he wrapped his attacks in gauze, preemptively agreeing with Obama on many questions. Obviously Romney and Obama have both seen polls showing a war-weary public still scarred by the Bush debacle.
Obama took apart Romney’s critique piece by piece. He was prepared for the Romney foreign policy talking points, and on several occasions he exposed them as absurd. He quoted Romney saying he would ask Pakistan’s permission to attack Osama bin Laden. He dismantled Romney’s claim that the U.S. Navy was weaker than it had been in a century. Romney repeatedly pleaded, “attacking me is not an agenda” — the sort of generic response a candidate stores up to use in situations when he can’t think of any reply at all.
I wrote a while ago that the election seemed like a reprise of 2004, with Obama as Bush and Romney as Kerry. In this debate, Obama seemed to play both the Bush and Kerry roles. Like Kerry in his successful debate, he exposed his opponent’s often facile beliefs with sharp dissection. Like Bush, he repeatedly assailed his opponent as “all over the map.”
But what Obama failed to do was to take the next step and make that latter charge into a larger disqualification of his opponent. Here is what Obama did not say: “My opponent changes his position on leaving troops in Iraq, on China, on Afghanistan, and on George W. Bush. You cannot believe anything he says.” Perhaps it was an oversight, or perhaps Obama did not think he needed to launch a nuclear strike on Romney’s character.
The reason this matters is that both candidates have acted throughout the entire campaign as though undecided voters don’t care about foreign policy at all. (Both candidates almost comically strove to change the subject to domestic policy; the most passionate exchange centered on the auto bailout, in which Romney maintained preposterously that he had endorsed government assistance to the auto industry.) Romney seemed determined to use the occasion to cleanse himself of the Bush odor. That defensiveness allowed Obama to beat him — very soundly, if instant polls are to be believed.