What a curious, curious performance by Mitt Romney in tonight’s foreign policy debate.
Romney spent the evening going back and forth between scattershot attacks on Barack Obama’s foreign policy — most of them poorly thought out and none of them packaged with any actual alternative policy suggestions — and praising Obama’s foreign policy and national security record.
The latter, of course, was unexpected. Oh, I think most of us figured that Romney would try to get a preemptive mention of the death of Osama bin Laden in early, and he did. But Romney didn’t stop there; on several issues he said he agreed with the president. And on Afghanistan, given an open invitation to attack, Romney praised Obama’s troop surge and said things were going well there now. No mention at all of insider attacks, no questioning whether the surge bought any real gains, no question of whether the government there is in decent shape — just a complete surrender on an issue that is seemingly a fertile ground for out-party attacks.
Speaking of attacks: Romney did trot out his greatest hits. The apology tour (Obama called him on that one), “daylight” between the United States and Israel, not speaking up for protesters in Iran. The usual litany. None of it has ever sounded particularly convincing to me, but what’s striking is just how large the policy gap has become. Iran? Romney wants tough sanctions. What if sanctions don’t work? Romney wants tough sanctions. How is that different from what Obama has done? Well, Romney has wanted tough sanctions for a long time. Or take the line that Romney tried out again Monday night about there being fewer ships in the Navy than in 1917. Obama was ready, and had a brutal rejoinder; Romney had . . . nothing.
The problem is that his attacks, over and over again, are just buzzwords and slogans. He’s entirely dependent on people being eager to believe him. On the economy, that may be the case; on foreign policy, it’s unlikely that very many viewers or foreign policy experts see the administration’s policies as “unraveling,” as Romney continues to insist he sees. That is, it’s unlikely that very many viewers agree unless they get the bulk of their information from Fox News.
Put together, the seemingly random switching from praise for some of the president’s policies to contempt for others was just strange. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing with some things and disagreeing with others, but Romney provided virtually no rhyme or reason for why one but not others.
Will any of this matter? As usual, I’m writing before seeing the reactions from anyone. I’ll be surprised if Romney gets a clear win out of this debate, and if I had to guess I’d say that Obama, who gave a mostly confident and aggressive but hardly inspired performance, is more likely to win the instant polls and be judged the “winner.” But I’d be more surprised if it produces a significant surge toward him from the dwindling group of undecided voters, few of whom are particularly interested in foreign policy outside of wanting to avoid more Iraq-like debacles. Of course, in a very close contest, any small edge helps.
But beyond the immediate electoral situation, there was little sign from Romney that he or the Republican Party is ready to reclaim a reputation for foreign policy and national security competence. Little sign? Make that no sign at all. If there’s any policy there, he’s hiding it well.