I was genuinely surprised by the Mitt Romney who showed up tonight. Conservatives had been yearning for Romney to finally swing the Libya cudgel at Obama’s supposed national security glass jaw — the one they’ve persuaded themselves Romney is always on the verge of shattering for good. But for most of the night, Romney studiously avoided attacking Obama aggressively. Perhaps Romney feels out of his depth on these issues and decided to tread carefully, to avoid major mistakes. Perhaps Romney thinks he’s on track to win. Perhaps Romney decided his most important imperative was to appear reassuring and presidential, rather than go on the attack. He clearly decided he needed to head off perceptions of himself as a throwback to Bush-era foreign policy adventurism, again and again stressing his desire for a peaceful world.
Tonight, America was introduced to Peacenik Mitt — and watched him take a pummeling. I don’t know how much this will impact the overall dynamic of the race — it may not matter much at all — but it’s hard to see this as a good night for Romney.
Romney didn’t take many of the shots he was expected to take — while Obama landed a number of very hard blows on Romney early on. Obama got right to his core message: We got Bin Laden, and we’re ending Bush’s wars. Obama holds the edge on foreign policy issues, and seemed determined to reinforce the sense that Romney simply lacks command of them, repeatedly invoking previous Romney statements to hit him for being “all over the map,” and contrasting that with the consistency and clarity he said a Commander in Chief must project. Romney failed to rebut many of these hits effectively. Oddly, Romney again and again supported Obama's positions, at one point basically acknowledging that Obama had made it clear that the United States has Israel’s back.
The downer of the night came when Romney strongly endorsed Obama’s drone policy, and moderator Bob Schieffer moved right along. The result: Obama faced zero tough questions about it. That’s just terrible, and reflective of the overall narrowness of the debate.
Romney, as always, was at his best when marshalling statistics to prosecute Obama’s economic record. I didn’t think Obama defended that record as strongly as he should have. But this may prove a wash, because the domestic policy portions of the debate also saw Obama hitting his core messages. Obama reiterated that he saved the auto industry, and called out Romney for dissembling in saying he’d supported government help to facilitate it, and fended off Romney’s attacks over China and trade.
I was glad to see Obama make a strong case against increased defense spending. Romney tried to demagogue the issue, but Obama responded with one of his better lines, deriding Romney’s lament of cuts to Navy ships by saying: “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Romney’s push for increased defense spending is key to his case that Obama is weakening America, but my bet is swing voters remember well that Bush’s wars were partly what exploded the deficit, and are prepared to accept the argument that needless increases in defense spending are bad for the country over the long term, not good for it.
Perhaps most important, Obama repeatedly connected his insistence on fiscal sanity on defense, and savings from drawing down the Bush wars, to the need to invest in nation building at home. In other words, Obama successfully connected tonight’s debate over foreign policy to his core domestic policy message about the imperative of investing in long term middle class security. I don’t know how much tonight will change the race, if at all, but my bet is polls in the days ahead will show stronger public preference for Obama’s overall vision.