Both men approached Monday’s debate behaving as if President Obama were the underdog. The president was clearly the more aggressive of the two and Governor Romney less so, playing it safe while putting his knowledge on display to pass the commander-in-chief test. And while Obama may have won the debate on points, as he did in the second debate, he failed to score the “knockout punch” he needed to turn the trajectory of the race, at least in the frame of the debates. More important, Romney passed the commander-in-chief test, proving that he could be the president’s equal on foreign policy, though with a different approach.
The debate began with a surprise. The first question moderator Bob Schieffer asked was whether events in Libya signaled that Obama’s foreign policy was “unraveling.” But instead of pursuing a discussion about the attack in Benghazi, Romney deliberately chose to broaden the discussion to a larger agenda on Middle East policy. His only attack was an attempt to reframe the killing of al Qaeda leaders, particularly Osama bin Laden, with his line “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Obama quickly rejoined the debate, pushing a message that he repeated throughout the night—that Romney’s foreign policy was all over the map. The exchange was the model for the entire debate. Obama would aggressively attack Romney on all fronts, and Romney would continue to push his foreign-policy agenda, talking in outlines of ideas at several moments in the debate.
Both men toned down stylistically from the rancor of the second debate, and early on the president appeared to get the better of the exchanges, appearing stronger on pursuing those who carried out the attack in Benghazi. He noted the similarity in their positions on Iran and cast the former governor’s previous assertion that Russia is the largest geopolitical threat as misplaced. Obama even did a marginally better job at tying the economy to foreign policy. Criticizing Romney’s policy on military spending as out of touch, the president equated the need for a large Navy with having “fewer horses and bayonets.” Early on, Obama moved the debate to domestic policy when he said nation building was more necessary at home. He also highlighted his position as commander in chief, noting that Romney hasn’t been in a “position to execute foreign policy.”
But through the exchanges, Romney drove his own message, one that was at times more moderate than the president’s, noting that the purpose of his foreign policy was “peace.” The real purpose was clear. Romney was demonstrating that he would be an acceptable commander in chief who could competently answer the call at 3 a.m. While the “warmonger” misperception of Romney is not as strong as it was when Ronald Reagan calmed those fears in his debate with President Carter, recent wars have left voters with a heightened sensitivity, and so the perception needed to be addressed.
The best exchange of the night for both men came in the debate over the president’s so-called apology tour. The president attempted to debunk the attack, calling it the “biggest whopper” of the campaign. But Romney offered his strongest attack of the night by calling attention to Obama leaving Israel off his foreign-travel itinerary and referencing specific language from Obama’s speeches that indicated a conciliatory tone. The president’s rejoinder was equally as strong. He criticized Romney’s own recent foreign trip as more concerned with fundraising than foreign policy.
When the debate turned to the economy, Romney returned to Denver-like form and continued to push the economic message that has given him an advantage throughout the debates. Both men agreed that the economy at home had to be strong to project U.S. leadership worldwide. But the president’s point that Romney would jeopardize the domestic economy in favor of increased military spending and interventionist adventurism was lost in Romney’s recitation of his five-point economic plan and, more important, the country’s economic reality.
Obama “won” the debate because he appeared to be the more aggressive debater. Aggressors in a competition are almost always viewed more positively, but Romney wasn’t the detached interlocutor the president was in the first debate, and so didn’t lose decisively. And in the end, Romney ended up winning the “debates narrative” because of his decisive first debate victory. More important, Romney accomplished his objective, appeared presidential, and made himself a reasonable and acceptable commander in chief. Obama asked the correct question of the debate, “Who would be the most credible?” Unfortunately for him, he only came off as marginally so. And in an election focused on the economy, that margin needed to be much wider.