The third presidential debate covered foreign policy
Romney won the third presidential debate – and how he did it was encapsulated in a single exchange. The candidates were discussing military spending and Romney had just accused Obama of making harmful cutbacks. The President wheeled out what must have seemed like a great, pre-planned zinger: “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed.” The audience laughed, Obama laughed, I laughed. It was funny.
But here’s why it was also a vote loser. For a start, Twitter immediately lit up with examples of how the US Army does still use horses and bayonets (horses were used during the invasion of Afghanistan). More importantly, this was one example of many in which the President insulted, patronised and mocked his opponent rather than put across a constructive argument. His performance was rude and unpresidential. Obama seemed to have a touch of the Bidens, wriggling about in his chair, waving his hands dismissively and always – always – smirking in Romney’s direction. By contrast, Romney sucked up the abuse and retained a rigid poker face all night. He looked like a Commander in Chief; Obama looked like a lawyer. Who would you rather vote for?
Aside from the horses and bayonets moment, this was essentially a debate without incident. Part of the fault was the format. It’s interesting to note that Romney won the first debate while standing up and Obama did better in the second when walking around. But when both men were forced to sit for 90 minutes, the energy was inevitably reduced and neither broke through the fourth wall convincingly. Romney had a slight edge because he didn’t use his hands so much: Obama blew his closing statements by developing ultra-energetic conjurer’s hands (“Look at the hands, not at the cards, look at the hands…”)
But the bigger problem was that they agreed on the essentials, which were all about foreign policy. Romney refused to tackle Obama directly on Libya (I shouted at the TV that he should, but he just wouldn’t listen) and Fast and Furious seems to have been forgotten by the GOP. In everything else, Obama has become so homicidally neoconservative and Romney so desperately peaceful that they’ve met in the middle on most issues. Both would defend Israel in the event of an attack, both want out of Afghanistan in 2014 and neither would let Iran get the bomb. If you want a real debate on foreign policy, you’re just going to have to wait until Rand Paul gets the nomination in 2020. At times this felt almost as boring as that Gingrich v Huntsman debate that I and about 4 other people watched during the primaries. Romney tried his darnedest to bring everything back to the economy and Obama seemed to say in every answer, “So what we need to do in the Middle East is talk more about how rubbish my opponent is.” It’s almost lucky that Obama isn’t running unopposed in this election because then he’d have nothing to run on at all.
Where a disagreement did exist was on the question of leadership; Romney wants to be proactive and Obama pledges to remain reactive. Nevertheless, both seem committed to nation building overseas – with Obama throwing in the caveat that he’d like to do some nation building at home, too. The real difference was in style. In his closing statement – after Obama was done making the Ace of Spades disappear – Romney channelled Reagan by looking straight into the camera and asserting his faith in America. It was empty, sugary stuff that will make liberals sick. But it was infinitely preferable to Obama’s constant, nasty attacks. Sometimes in life, the nice guys do win.
We also have to judge this debate as part of the narrative arc of this season. Romney won the first debate by a mile. Because Romney’s win was so decisive, it sparked an image change: Americans started to think of him as presidential material. That’s why Obama winning the second debate by an inch made little impact – people were watching Romney not to see him land punches but to see how well he could take them. He won the third debate because, by the end of the night, his and Obama’s positions in the narrative arc had switched. Romney now looks like the President and Obama looks like the challenger.