Tonight's debate reminded me of that Saturday Night Live sketch from the 2000 debate in which Darrell Hammond's Al Gore answered, "I agree" to everything said by Will Ferrell's George W. Bush. On Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Romney again and again repudiated any substantial policy difference between himself and the president. Obama in turn presented himself as Israel's very best friend - indeed, if a viewer played a drinking game at mention of "Israel," he would end the evening as drunk as on Purim.
Romney arrived tonight with one clear goal: to present himself as a man of peace, then pivot to the economy. (In one answer, he repeated the word "peaceful" three times and the word "peace" six more.) Romney complained about the president's foreign policy style and tone, and scored some points elaborating what he meant by the 2009 "apology tour." But on substance, Romney was careful to say nothing that would allow the president to represent him as the return of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Obama's goal tonight was to accuse Romney of a reckless and dangerous foreign policy. In a generally effective performance, the president seemed taken by surprise by Romney's born-again dovishness - at least, if not surprised, he did not have a very ready answer. He was second to pivot to the economy, but I notice that his answer about the greatest foreign policy threat we face did conclude with a stern denunciation of cheap Chinese tire exports.
The memory of Iraq and the killing of bin Laden has obviated to a great extent the traditional structural Republican advantage on defense. It was hard for Romney to accuse the president of weakness -and could have been dangerously easy for Romney to render himself vulnerable to accusations of seeking another war with Iran.
Romney saw the dilemma and avoided it by hugging the president tight. Obama solved his problems by going personal about Romney's investment portfolio. Maybe that moved the dials in Ohio, but it sure seemed cheap and irrelevant anywhere else.
Both men understand that the nation is tired of conflict - and that it's not very interested this year in the world outside its borders, not even across the line in Mexico.
-- More Tomorrow --