Parsing the Third Debate
Once again we are pleased to have debate analysis from Robert David Sullivan:
My quick analysis before diving into Twitter and the blogosphere:
Once again, Moderate Mitt made it through a presidential debate without getting unmasked or unmoored by President Barack Obama.
Romney used his closing statement to portray himself as the bipartisan, ready-to-deal political leader that Obama promised to be in 2008. He touted his success as a Republican governor in Massachusetts, “where the Legislature was 87 percent Democrat” – though he would have really shown his bipartisan bona fides if had said “Democratic” instead of the shortened term that the GOP uses to taunt the opposition.
Both candidates itched to talk about the economy throughout the debate, which was supposed to be about foreign policy. There was a long stretch in which they revisited the argument about Romney’s tax cut plan (and how he would pay for it), and the testiest exchange was about Obama’s use of government funds to successfully rescue the automobile industry. Romney seems to be sticking to the view that the industry could have gone through bankruptcy and come out the other side with government-guaranteed private loans (as opposed to direct assistance), but Obama ran out of time to pin him down. It’s moments like this that show why so many governors, as opposed to legislators with voting records, have ascended to the presidency in recent history. There must have been many times in this campaign where Obama wished he could say, “But you voted against [or for] it, Mr. Romney!” instead of referring to the Republican’s carefully worded speeches and op-ed columns.
Foreign policy was the main topic of discussion, and that topic rarely helps incumbents unless they’re hawkish (so they can say it’s too dangerous to change horses) or can portray their opponents as reckless (i.e., Barry Goldwater). Obama certainly showed his teeth as much as possible during the debate. He said that the killing of Osama Bin Laden brought “closure” to the victims of 9/11 (sounding very much like a law enforcement officer). Not surprisingly, he paid no tribute to former Democratic nominee George McGovern, a leader of the fight against the Vietnam War, who died over the weekend. But Obama’s chief argument was that the world has, to some degree, become safer and more stable under his watch. Whether this is true, it’s like arguing that crime has gone down; a big chunk of the electorate won’t believe it no matter what you say.
So Romney simply reassured nervous voters that they’re right to worry. He talked about “a very dramatic reversal in the hopes we had in that region,” referring to the Middle East but presumably hoping that voters would apply the statement to just about anything they found wanting with the Obama administration. “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran,” he fretted. Even when he agreed with the Obama – on toughening sanctions against Iran or America’s role in pushing Mubarek out of power in Egypt – he criticized the president for not moving fast enough, not showing enough resolve.
Moderate Mitt was careful to reassure voters that, as with his tax cut plan, his goals could be achieved without much of a price. “We should be playing the leadership role there,” he said of Syria, with a nanosecond pause before adding, “not on the ground with military.” Also speaking of Syria, he said, “Our objective is to replace [President] Assad … but I don’t want to see military involvement.” Obama’s best chance to prevail on foreign policy is to make Romney seem more likely to bog us down in another war -- something that’s not inconceivable given much of the Republican’s rhetoric and his campaign’s association with neo-conservatives from the George W. Bush administration – but he got few opportunities to try this argument tonight.
Instead, Obama criticized Romney for “being all over the map” (using this phrase at least three times) on foreign policy statements. He also stressed “nation-building” at home and repeatedly said that Romney would make cuts to education spending that would hurt our competitiveness in the world economy. Romney countered that the federal debt was a bigger problem.
Obama’s big zinger of the night was saying that Romney was pursuing “the foreign policy of the 1980s, the social policies of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.” This was in reference to Romney’s tough talk on Russia, but older viewers might have been a touch nostalgic for the certainties of the Cold War.
Indeed, this was one of the narrowest debates on foreign policy that I can remember, compared with the days of the nuclear freeze movement, the fight against apartheid, and the civil wars in Nicaragua and other Latin American nations. Not only did the debate rarely stray from the Middle East, there was no discussion about human rights, global poverty, AIDS and other health concerns, climate change, or the economic development of Africa and other impoverished areas. There was very little about the United Nations and nothing about US funding of sex-education programs, as well as programs that provide for contraception and abortion in other nations.
Robert David Sullivan