Final Debate: Obama Scores a Win
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On Monday night, Barack Obama won a decisive victory over Mitt Romney in a debate that's unlikely to swing a lot of votes. The CBS snap-poll, which had given Mitt Romney a 24-point margin of victory in the first debate, found Obama winning the third and final contest by 30 points. Public Policy Polling's survey of swing-state voters found Obama winning 53-42 among that group; CNN scored it for Obama by 8. And Fox News pundits declared the debate a “draw,” which suggests that Obama's win was difficult to deny.
But the two candidates battled over foreign policy, ranked low on voters' list of issues, and they did so going up against both Monday Night Football and the deciding game of the National League Championship series. One can be pretty confident that Monday's debate was watched by far fewer people than the first two, at a time when far fewer voters remain on the fence.
Coming into the debate, Obama enjoyed the advantage of incumbency – having a foreign policy record to run on that is seen as strong by the rather narrow standards of the Beltway media. According to Gallup, as the evening began, Obama led on the question of who voters trust to handle foreign affairs by a 12-point margin (53-41).
He pressed that advantage, taking credit for ending the American military's active involvement in Iraq, promising to fulfill his pledge to complete the transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014, touting the number of unfair trade complaints he'd filed against China and, of course, reminding voters that he'd ordered the raid that finally got Osama Bin Laden.
Romney enjoys an advantage from the debate format itself. He's able to furiously shake his etch-a-sketch, and in real-time the average voter has little way of knowing how far his rhetoric is straying from the positions he'd staked out for much of the campaign.
Romney did exactly that on Monday, portraying himself as a candidate dedicated first and foremost to promoting global peace, a dubious claim given that he has assembled a foreign policy team that includes some of the most belligerent veterans of the Bush administration – people like John Bolton and Eliot Cohen. In one notable exchange, Romney said, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the -- the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism.”
His strategy for the evening was transparent: to assure voters that he would not pursue a Bush foreign policy – and especially to assure women of his reasonableness. He talked about combating terrorism by promoting economic growth, education, gender equality and the rule of law in the so-called “Muslim world.” Three of the four mentions of the United Nations came from the mouth of the Republican candidate.
In this debate, Romney almost entirely abandoned the bizarre Fox News-style talking-points that had gotten him in trouble in the previous one. There was no talk of Obama "sympathizing" with terrorists or "apologizing for our values." On the few occasions when he did – like when he mentioned Obama's “apology tour” – he got burned by it. Obama responded by saying, “nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.”
Obama had obviously been sensitive to the criticism that he didn't “fact-check” Romney forcefully enough during the first debate. He was aggressive in correcting Romney – at times, the two candidates devolved into bickering as moderator Bob Scheiffer struggled to retain control of the proceedings.
Obama's most memorable moment came in response to Romney's oft-repeated stump speech line about how the United States' military has been “gutted,” as evidenced by the fact that we have fewer naval vessels than we did in 1916. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama replied. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
Romney accused Obama of being insufficiently “tough” on Iran, and Obama used the bait to hit back, saying, “we’ve put in the toughest, most crippling sanctions ever. And the fact is, while we were coordinating an international coalition to make sure these sanctions were effective, you were still invested in a Chinese state oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector.”
Romney struggled to make the case that he would bring our enemies to their knees by talking tougher. Of Iran, he said, “I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength. And I say that because from the very beginning, the president in his campaign four years ago, said he would meet with all the world’s worst actors in his first year, he’d sit down with Chavez and Kim Jong-il, with Castro and President Ahmadinejad of Iran. And I think they looked and thought, well, that’s an unusual honor to receive from the President of the United States.” This was an attack line from 2008 that has been considerably blunted by the fact that Obama has been in the White House for four years and hasn't met with Kim Jong-Il, now deceased, Castro or Ahmadinejad.
What arguably stood out the most about the debate is the extent to which Mitt Romney took pains to agree with Obama. He endorsed his timetable for pulling out of Afghanistan (in the past he'd stressed that he'd let the generals determine when the timing is right), applauded his drone program, and lauded him for taking out the leadership of Al Qaeda.
The other thing that was noteworthy about the debate is just how narrow our discourse over foreign policy really is. There was one mention of Latin America, and Africa, Asia – aside from China – and Europe were only mentioned in passing. There was lots of discussion about the threat from Iran and China and even the federal budget deficit, but no mention of what is without doubt the single greatest threat to global security -- climate change.
On the whole, Obama won on the proverbial “optics.” He looked confident and in command, while Romney appeared at times to be a bit out of his depth. The president continually challenged Romney without coming off as belligerent. Romney was once again aggressive with the moderator, constantly demanding more time.
Monday's clash in Boca Raton won't have the same impact as the first debate, when Mitt Romney managed to reset a race he was losing badly at the time. But this late in the game, even a small shift in public opinion takes on outsized importance as we count down to November 6. Obama may well get that shift from this final debate, even if few Americans actually watched it.