The third and final face-off between the presidential contenders was highly anticipated, but for the first time in the debate season it turned out to be a bit of a letdown. No doubt Mitt Romney’s aim going in was to rise above the fray and present himself as a plausible commander in chief. President Obama was looking to make news, but his hyper-aggressive rhetoric hasn’t been a winner with voters. The result was a more subdued albeit hard-fought battle between two candidates with very different world views.
The first question on Libya set the tone for Romney, taking a larger view of the Arab Spring, running through the hot spots and the dangers posed by a potential nuclear-armed Iran. He went centrist in declaring we “can’t kill our way out of this.” Obama leapt immediately to Iraq and Afghanistan, choosing to steer as far away from Libya as he could. Romney gingered a slight Obama jab and used his time to bolster his soft power credentials, slipping in a mention of Mali.
Romney calmly rebutted more attacks, slipping in a crack at Obama’s promise to give Vladimir Putin more “flexibility” after the election. Obama tried to pick a fight over troops in Iraq, but Romney reminded him that he had tried but failed to reach a status of forces to leave troops in Iraq.
On Syria, Obama made a weak case that he had “organized” the international community. Romney showed his knowledge, reviewing the mass murder but also the missed strategic opportunity if we do not oust Iran’s best ally.
On Egypt, the differences appeared minimal, with both favoring the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Rather than quibble over Obama’s lack of preparedness, Romney gave a larger spiel about the Middle East and the threat of a huge debt. He gently criticized the sequestration cuts. He ended on a tough note, however, saying that there is no place where we have more influence in the world today.
Before Obama could retort, moderator Bob Schieffer moved on to the more generic subject of the United States in the world. Romney took the chance to veer back to the economy and to strengthening the U.S. military. He called the “tension” between the U.S. and Israel “unfortunate”and used the same low-key language to criticize Obama for pulling missile defense sites out of Eastern Europe. He, again in calm terms, took Obama to task for not supporting the Green Revolution. Obama was then on defense, saying that our alliances are just great. In turn, Romney used the chance to leap right back into his five-point agenda.
The picture was ironic — a sitting president trying to pick a fight, and a challenger calmly responding, refusing to respond and landing strategic blows (in large part on domestic policy). When Obama waded into education, Romney hit it out of the ballpark, touting Massachusetts test results as #1 in the country. Romney headed off the Obama interruptions without batting an eye.
The conversation drifted repeatedly back to domestic issues. A question on defense spending got into a debate on Romney’s tax cut plan. Romney touted his balanced-budget credentials in business, in the governorship of Massachusetts and in the Olympics. He wended his way back to defending a properly sized Navy and opposing the sequestration cuts. Obama seemed to lose it, insisting (incorrectly) that the sequestration was Congress’s idea and saying that we don’t need so many ships, just like we don’t need horses anymore (?!). It was the most unpresidential moment of the debate.
On Iran, the president tried to generically accuse Romney of being too hasty to use force. Romney defused that easily, explaining his call for sanctions five years ago. Romney reeled off a list of soft power steps, including diplomatic isolation, dubbing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a war criminal and using forces as a last resort. Romney perked up a bit, criticizing the “daylight” stance Obama took with Israel, his quietude on the Green Revolution and the “apology tour.” Romney insisted he had Iran in a corner and called it a “whopper” that he had apologized for America. Romney came back and in a master stroke cited Obama’s apologetic words in Arabic countries. Obama was plainly flustered and did not dispute Romney’s attacks, preferring to cite his travels to Israel. Romney kept pounding Obama for allowing Iran to get closer to acquiring a nuclear bomb and for creating rocky relations with Israel.
At several points, Obama tried to call his opponent a flip-flopper, but in halting delivery and in clumsy, broad strokes, the effort came across as grasping and defensive. It was as if it dawned on him that he no longer had the high ground in an area he once thought was a strong suit.
On Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was hard to see much of a difference. Romney succeeded in appearing calm and presidential. When it came to China, both sounded the “we can be partners” note, but Romney then went tough, promising to label China a currency manipulator. Obama tried to attack, (falsely) saying that Romney’s companies had shipped jobs overseas. There was a brief flurry on the auto bailout, with Obama (incorrectly) saying that Romney opposed government guarantees after bankruptcy.
On a final tussle on hiring teachers, Romney calmly lectured the president on the suffering endured in the past four years. He called it “tragedy.” He told Obama that he liked teachers, too, but that the challenge was to restart the private sector.
In closing, Obama showed some desperation, once more trying to say that Romney would repeat the Bush policies. Romney ended on an optimistic note, sounding entirely confident that he had just cleared the final hurdle between him and the presidency.
Schieffer was a steady but unobtrusive presence, striking a nice balance between Jim Lehrer and Candy Crowley.
Winners: Romney, going above the fray, whoever researched Obama’s apologies in visits to Arab nations.
Losers: Obama, whoever thought it was a good idea to compare Navy ships to horses, Democrats hoping to disrupt the trajectory of the race.