Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Last Debate

In keeping with our recent "Star Trek" kick.

With the completion of Monday night's Presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, this presidential debate season is now at an end. General comments about all the debates will appear at the end of this post. As for this debate, allow me to begin by saying that moderator Bob Schieffer, long a staple of the Sunday morning political talk shows, performed admirably tonight. His questions were pointed yet sparse; he was firm when he needed to be, but also content to let President Obama and Gov. Romney spar in a vigorous yet civil fashion; and tended to permit the debate to proceed as it did while interrupting mostly only when necessary.

But readers of this blog, I imagine, are not nearly as interested in moderators as they are in the debaters themselves, so let us turn now to them. President Obama came into this night still reeling from his unexpectedly decisive loss in the first debate--a loss that has "fundamentally transformed" (to coin a phrase) the nature of this campaign (more on that below). The President and his team have been hoping ever since that first loss for a performance of similar magnitude against either Gov. Romney or Rep. Paul Ryan. Vice President Joe Biden attempted this in his debate with Ryan by being rudely aggressive, and ended up having little impact; Obama himself attempted a similar aggression in last week's town hall, though again to little avail.

This night, therefore, provided Team Obama with its last chance for a game-changer. And this debate, with its focus on foreign policy, gave the President a distinct advantage: to put it bluntly, he is the President. In other words, he is the one reading intelligence briefs, talking to the joint chiefs, executive sanctions, etc. For a president not to seem presidential during a debate would have been a difficult feat indeed, and Obama didn't manage it. In a sense, then the burden was on Gov. Romney, as challenger, merely to appear presidential, and he did manage that. His strategy for doing so, however, was probably not the one many on both sides of the aisle expected. Romney actually ended up agreeing in principle with President Obama on most of the foreign policy issues--the need to put pressure on Iran, the importance of an alliance with Israel, etc--but instead focused on a broader picture of the world Obama's policies have, if not necessarily given us, at the very least allowed to form.

And it's not a pretty picture, as Romney made clear throughout the night. To cite just two of his examples: Iran--a quasi-theocracy that fully intends to wipe Israel off the map when it can--is four years closer to nuclear capacity, and the Middle East itself is in chaos. Romney also made effective use of what he called President Obama's "Apology Tour"--a trip through the Middle East that Obama made in the first months of his presidency not only to break from the Bush years by, Romney claimed, placing the brunt of the world's problems on the United States. Obama partisans and spinners may say that he "won" the foreign policy portion of the debate, but, as was said above, he is the president. Romney "wins" simply by making himself seem worthy of not merely discussing these issues but by executing his vision prudently, and that he did tonight.

Interestingly, unexpectedly, and--perhaps--fortunately (let's be honest, foreign policy is a bit of a bore), this debate strayed significantly from foreign policy. Obama was the first to insert his plug for "nation-building at home"; Romney quickly followed suit by citing Adm. Mike Mullen's assessment that our national debt is America's greatest national security threat; and the pattern of drift into domestic policy continued from there. Obama managed a few zingers here and there in this area, but Romney has the failed record of the Obama presidency so far down pat, and rehearsed it to great effect. There were several interesting exchanges during this part of the debate; perhaps the most interesting concerned the federal government's 2008-2009 bailout of the U.S. auto industry. The President's actions on it are a point of pride for him, and he uses them in much of his swing-state campaigning and advertising. Yet Romney finally managed to fight back on this point, clarifying that he supported a managed bankruptcy of GM, not the "liquidation" that Obama has attempted to pin on him. 

Taking the debate as a whole, President Obama and Gov. Romney seemed evenly matched. Neither managed a significant attack on the other that is likely to outlast coverage of this debate. One of the night's few remarks likely to escape the news cycle's undulations is Obama's snide remark about "horses and bayonets," in response to Gov. Romney's noting that the number of ships in the U.S. Navy is down to its lowest level since 1917. A la Joe Biden, it may have been a good point--had the President chosen a better delivery. As I would gladly tell anyone of any political stripe: it does not behoove political discourse to treat serious issues snidely and in talking points. (That being said, Obama's "the 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back" seems straight out of the 9th grade.)

That this debate, then, resulted in Romney's seeming more like a potential commander-in-chief, and produced no gamechanger for Obama, is, in effect, a victory for Romney. Even if Romney doesn't win in two weeks, historians, pundits, and others will look at the first debate of this presidential election season as an incredible shift in the race's momentum toward Romney. The Obama team had three chances to work back the gains Romney made that day, and none succeeded. Now, only two weeks of campaigning and advertising remain, and we shall see whom voters decide is worthy of being the next President of the United States.

One final note: the split-screen did not play well to the President tonight. When not speaking, he was giving Gov. Romney a glare icy enough to confirm in and of itself all of the reporting suggesting that Obama strongly dislikes Romney on a personal level. Take a look, via the Weekly Standard:

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