Dana Milbank
Opinion writer October 23, 2012

Tell us, President Obama, about your foreign policy.

“We’ve got to make sure that we reduce our deficit. . . . by cutting out spending we don’t need but also asking the wealthiest to pay a little bit more. That way we can invest in the research and technology that’s always kept us at the cutting edge.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Thank you, Mr. President. And your foreign policy, Governor Romney?

“I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs and rising take-home pay. . . . We’re going to do it by taking full advantage of oil, coal, gas, nuclear and our renewables.”

Obama spoke of the domestic auto industry. Romney spoke of teachers unions. Obama spoke of education funding. Romney spoke of small businesses. Obama spoke of tax deductions. Romney spoke of Medicaid.

“Let me get back to foreign policy,” moderator Bob Schieffer proposed at one point during the exchange. It was, after all, supposed to be the all-foreign-policy debate, 90 minutes chock full of international affairs.

“Well — ” Romney protested.

“Can I just get back — ” the courtly Schieffer persisted.

“Well, I need to speak a moment if you’ll let me, Bob, just about education.”

Schieffer surrendered. “Okay.”

There was a problem with having this last of three presidential debates focus on the candidates’ clashing worldviews. For all the smoke and heat, there isn’t much difference between the Obama and Romney foreign policies in most key areas.

On Israel: “I want to underscore the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel,” Romney said, concurring with Obama.

On opposing Hosni Mubarak in Egypt: “I felt the same as the president did,” Romney affirmed.

On drone warfare: “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology,” the challenger asserted.

Obama, in turn, was pleased to observe that “Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking” on Iran.

After just half an hour of teasing out and exaggerating their small differences on Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, the exhausted candidates were delighted to turn to domestic affairs, where their contrasts are genuine.

That’s not to say they didn’t quarrel about matters overseas. There is such a palpable dislike between Romney and Obama, and they are locked in such a tight race, that they could fill 90 minutes bickering about the weather.

Obama was the more aggressive candidate Monday night, glaring at his opponent. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he taunted Romney, saying, “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

The president suggested that “every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” and chided Romney for regarding military spending as a “game of Battleship” because of the Republican’s criticism that the Navy has fewer ships than it had in 1916. “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” the president needled.

Romney’s approach was more of a balance: He had the head of a neocon (many of his advisers are hawkish veterans of the Bush-Cheney years) but the body of a realist on foreign policy. At one point he would give a chest-thumping lecture about how “it’s essential for a president to show strength from the very beginning,” but would then get to a reality with more nuance: “I don’t want to have our military involved in — in Syria . . . at this stage.”

Romney embraced the neocon view of bending the world to American wishes, creating “civil societies” and promising to show Russia’s Vladimir Putin “more backbone.”

But the repeated efforts by both men to return to domestic disputes made clear their acceptance that the contest, now a dead heat, is not about the world.

Romney informed viewers about his college scholarship program in Massachusetts.

“That happened before you came into office,” Obama retorted.

“That was actually mine,” Romney insisted.

“I want to try to shift it,” Schieffer pleaded, “because we have heard some of this in the other debates.”

Viewers would hear it again on Monday night. Romney spoke of his balanced budgets in Massachusetts. Obama complained about Romney’s faulty budget math and accused him of undermining the auto industry.

“I was born in Detroit,” Romney protested. “My dad was head of a car company. I like American cars.” The car lover then shifted topics — back to education. “I love teachers,” he said. “I was a governor. The federal government didn’t hire our teachers. But I love teachers.”

The thwarted Schieffer brought the foreign policy debate to a close. “I think we all love teachers,” he said.

danamilbank@washpost.com