In final debate, Mitt Romney leaves behind the ‘leading from behind’ critique

October 23, 2012

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

Much has been made of Romney’s confounding strategy in the third presidential debate, in which the Republican candidate seemed to want to appear as moderate as possible, no matter how it meshed with what he’d said about foreign policy in the past.

For instance, not once in the entire debate, inexplicably, did Mitt Romney’s much-loved “leading from behind” line ever come up, according to the transcript. Not once. I expected the line, which initially came from President Barack Obama’s own staff to describe his philosophy of acting more like a shepherd than a drill sergeant in foreign affairs—and can be traced back to Nelson Mandela—to be one of the most overused lines of the night. By deploying this line, I suspected, Romney would try to paint the president as weak, especially on issues like Libya (which got far less air time than anyone would have guessed). I was wrong. Romney’s calculus appeared to be that criticizing the president for “leading from behind” might make Romney himself look too hawkish.

President Obama’s strategy, meanwhile, was to remind people that he had actually held the role of commander-in-chief, and that he knows what it takes to lead credibly on a world stage. He even began his answer to the first question with the words, “Well, my first job as commander-in-chief...” Later on, he offered a not-so-subtle dig at Romney’s lack of foreign-policy experience by reminding his opponent that “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy—but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”

Still, Obama’s most effective line came when he said “here’s one thing I’ve learned as commander-in-chief: you’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean. You just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.”

I have no idea how this played with the independent middle-America voters to whom Romney was clearly trying to pander. But the president’s description of leadership—a word thrown about ad nauseam with little real definition in last night’s debate—couldn’t be more correct.

Yes, leadership in foreign policy is about being strong. And yes, it is about having a vision of the future and where the country should be heading. But it is also about communicating in a principled and consistent fashion where you, as the U.S. president, stand on specific foreign-policy issues. Without doing so, there is no clarity, whether for Americans, the people who support us or those who oppose us. And without clarity, there is no leadership.

More from On Leadership:

Great leadership profiles of Barack Obama

Great leadership profiles of Mitt Romney

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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