What Could Romney Have Done Better?

10.23.12

Mitt's Many Missed Moments

Since I've been reading an extra dose of Ezra Klein today, I figured I'd emulate something he does quite well: a deep examination of the transcript. For brevity, I'll focus on Gov. Romney's missed opportunities.

Mali/Libya

The first came in Romney's opening statement, when he referenced Libya and jumped to Mali without making the obvious connection.

With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation, and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life, and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead, we've seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events. Of course we see in Syria, 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in - in Libya, an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against - against our people there, four people dead.

Our hearts and - and minds go out to them. Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali by al-Qaeda type individuals. We have in - in Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood president. And so what we're seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region. Of course the greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon. And - and we're going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done. I congratulate him on - on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaeda.

Daniel Larison is spot-on in his description of why this happened. Romney supported Libya, he hasn't talked about Mali over the course of the campaign, and it was evident he remembered to mention Mali from debate prep, but not why and how. As a result, you get a disjointed opener that accurately notes two trouble spots without explaining why the U.S. policy in one was a major factor in influencing the second.

Syria

Romney's next, well, less than ideal moment arrived during the discussion on Syria.

ROMNEY: Well, let's step back and talk about what's happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster. Secondly, Syria is an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now.

ROMNEY: Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a - a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so the right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources, to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a - in a form of - if not government, a form of - of - of council that can take the lead in Syria. And then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves. We do need to make sure that they don't have arms that get into the - the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road. We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies, and particularly with - with Israel.

But the Saudi's and the Qatari, and - and the Turks are all very concerned about this. They're willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the - the insurgent there are armed and that the insurgents that become armed, are people who will be the responsible parties. Recognize - I believe that Assad must go. I believe he will go. But I believe - we want to make sure that we have the relationships of friendship with the people that take his place, steps that in the years to come we see Syria as a - as a friend, and Syria as a responsible party in the Middle East.

Ponder this for a moment. Just minutes before, Romney had brought up Libya and Mali as areas of concern and caution, and they should be considered as such. With thousands of small arms flowing into the regionand general chaos due to the fall of centralized government, Libya and Mali are indeed reason to question the wisdom of the President's decision to intervene in North Africa.

And then Romney basically says: "let's give the Syrian rebels a bunch of guns and support."

I absolutely agree that Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, et. al. have a compelling interest in a peaceful and stable Syria. The real question is: "How do we balance the concern about human life with broader international stability?" This would become a near meme over the course of the evening, as Romney appeared fully committed to liberty, freedom, security, and stability. With apologies to the Governor, you can't always have what you want. Statesmanship is making choices between a series of less than ideal options, not some chess game where an imperfect choice is always avoidable.

Pakistan

The Governor did quite well on this section, standing beside the committment our nation has to help Pakistan stabilize and modernize. His mistake was omitting the classic example of why this is so important.

Her name is Malala, and she is why it is so crucial to hold fast in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we educate the next generation of young women, the Taliban loses. Educated women have less children, are less tolerant of extremism, and suffer less from chronic poverty.

But if we fail, no troop surge will eradicate barbarism from the region.

The governor did just fine on the question, but it could have become a defining moment had he put a face to the question at hand. Failing to discuss Malala and the fate of other girls like her turned a deeply emotion and meaningful problem into one of abstraction. That's not how you win deeply complex arguments.

The World Has More Than 2 Continents

Romney could have mentioned Mexico, the drug war, troubles in the Eurozone, the fears our Asian allies have regarding China, or even the Keystone XL pipeline. Any of those could be issues of difference with the President. Ignoring them turned what could have been a wideranging assault on administrative failures into a giant word soup of "I Agree."

And that's a pity, because we really could have used a sharp debate.