Mellow Mitt

Debate III: Obama Wins, But Does It Do Him Any Good?

Romney agrees Obama to death. Why? Maybe there's a reason for it.

Snap verdict: Barack Obama won, again, for two in row. The CBS snap poll had it (more lopsidedly than I saw it, by the way) as 53 to 23 Obama, with 24 percent undecided. But Mitt Romney’s strategy tonight was the more interesting. Romney clearly came into this having decided that he didn’t have to win this debate. He just had to come across as Not a Crazy Person.

Hence, all the agreeing with Obama, all the adopting of milquetoast positions. I’d imagine John Bolton had to turn this off after about 40 minutes because he couldn’t bear watching it. But I wonder if Romney’s strategy is enough to work.

If you actually care about foreign policy, you lost this debate. It was superficial and jumpy and herky-jerky, bopping all over the place. Bob Schieffer was hideously bad—don’t worry, Jim Lehrer fans, your guy was still the worst of the lot, but Schieffer finished second. He let them wander for far too long over to domestic policy, and he asked the kinds of questions that some journalists think are tough but are really just stupid gotcha questions that advance nothing.

“Would you consider a strike on Israel to be a strike on the United States?” is an idiotic gotcha question. No serious person thinks that. And no serious person thinks we should “divorce” Pakistan. There are questions that actually might force these guys to react and go off their talking points for at least 20 seconds, and there are questions just let them mount their horses. Nothing important was learned tonight at all.

The headline of the night, of course, was how Romney just agreed Obama into the ground. Afghanistan was the most striking. Romney saying we’ll be out by 2014? What? What happened to we’ll listen to the commanders on the ground, not give the bad guys a date certain? And Syria. No, no troops, what ever are you talking about, Bob? On Iran, a little more disagreement than that, but Romney again was unwilling to draw any lines in the sand, lay down any hard markers. Sanctions, you say? Sanctions it is!

And Benghazi. No attacks! And Romney agreed that Obama was right to dump Mubarak. Fascinating. What was going on here?

What was going on was that Romney wasn’t trying to win this debate. He was trying—forgive this Gergenism—to pass the commander-in-chief test to centrist voters. That 23 percent from CBS is awfully low. Surprisingly low to me. Maybe he didn’t inhabit the boom-boom space people expect the Republican to inhabit. Maybe his flagrant contradictions of his past positions finally caught up with him. Maybe people felt he just sounded a little general most of the time, which he did. If that 23 percent number reflects anything broader, of course.

My sense is that the Romney team decided: Things are going our way. If we can just tip the balance in Ohio, we have this. So tonight, just don’t mess it up. He didn’t mess anything up, and he probably passed the Gergen test.

In other words, he and his team felt that they didn’t need to move the dial. Obama still did, and does, need to. Two solid debate wins should arrest Romney momentum. But what can he do to build positive momentum of his own? I’m not sure he accomplished that. This wasn’t the kind of debate that fundamentally alters the dynamic of a race.

So Tuesday, it’s back to Detroit and the bailout (not that we left it), back to the economy, back to the ad wars and the ground games that are going to grind this thing out anyway. This wasn’t much more than a diversion. Obama won it, but the important question is whether it will matter that he won it, or, did Romney meet a certain threshold and that’s enough for enough swing voters.