Well, that was a waste of time. The third and final presidential debate, held in Boca Raton, Fla., was supposed to be on foreign policy. That’s usually the native habitat of Republicans. Not Monday night, and not this presidential campaign. President Obama so owns that terrain that there appeared to be little to no daylight tonight between himself and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Obama adopted the mien Republicans used to adopt with Democrats, that of the testy commander in chief forced to debate the not-nearly-as-knowledgeable challenger. And he repeatedly hit Romney as someone who was “all over the map” with views on foreign policy — a charge whose sting intensified the more Romney said “me, too” to nearly every policy adopted by the president.
With the exception of who had the greater concern for Israel, I am hard-pressed to find an area where Romney substantively disagreed with Obama. Pulling out of Afghanistan, halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nurturing Egypt’s fragile semblance of democracy, getting to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi, addressing the “tumult in the Middle East.” Romney agreed with the president on just about everything. Adopting the increased use of drones. He just did it more emphatically in his presentation of either what the president had just said or what the president is already doing.
At times, it felt like Romney was unloading in every response all of the foreign policy he’s learned since starting his security briefings and debate prep. But there were times when I was literally lost in the salad-shooter of words masquerading as answers. For instance, I had no idea that Iran, which has a 1,500-mile coastline, was allied with Syria because it needed a “route to the sea.”
The only time there was heat and real policy difference was when the candidates careened into domestic policy. Obama and Romney replayed their arguments from the stump and the Hofstra town hall forum. Romney’s numbers don’t add up, Obama would say. Yes, they do, because I was a businessman and a governor who had to balance budgets, Romney would reply. But all the talk of putting people back to work with 12 million jobs and energy independence and nation-building at home didn’t last long.
Romney’s apparent “me, too” strategy on foreign policy was summed up nicely by the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC right after the debate. Rather than respond to a damaging punch, Romney seemed to “clench and embrace and agree” with Obama. The result was a candidate who was trying to look presidential but came off unprincipled. “He stood for nothing for 90 minutes,” Sharpton said. But he stood. And avoiding a knockout might have been all that the Romney campaign was hoping for with just two weeks to go until Election Day.