Battle of Boca

Obama-Romney III: All About Projection

The third debate could well be the most dramatic of all.

For the subject no one is supposed to care about, this next and final debate could end up being absolutely crucial. The stakes were arguably high enough with Benghazi in the gunsights one more time. But suddenly, the “news” or leak or whatever it is that Iran may have agreed to post-election negotiations with the Obama administration will add tremendous drama to Monday night’s affair.

It’s still the case that very few people will vote on these issues per se. But this debate will be about projection. Who looks strong and serious and intelligent and neither hair-trigger crazy nor like he could get rolled by the mullahs. That’s who’ll win, and the winner should be able to make the sale that you can trust me generally, across the board.

If you asked me the biggest challenge to be faced by whoever wins this election, I would say without hesitation: avoiding World War III. I don’t jest. Okay, maybe not quite world war. The last world war went global only because the great European powers and Japan held all those colonial possessions, so the war naturally spread like gangrene nearly everywhere. That, at least, would not be replicated today.

But if you’re talking about a powder keg whose contents include Iran, Syria, and Israel, you’re talking about quite a keg indeed, and these are all questions that are going to have be, I hate to say it, “settled” in one way or another in the next four years. These all can be settled without war. But several fortuities have to happen for that to be the case. And a nuclear Iran can be contained—the mullahs know what would happen to their country if they used a weapon. But Barack Obama has basically ruled containment out, and Mitt Romney certainly has. It’s not at all ridiculous to think that matters could escalate into a regional war with untold consequences.

I think it’s probably in Obama’s interests Monday night to paint, to some extent, this bleak picture for viewers. To your average American who doesn’t think he’s the Manchurian Muslim, he’s been a steady hand on the tiller. Romney’s rhetoric has been irresponsible, stupid, and dangerous.

That’s a bit ironic, because when you blow past the rhetoric and try to parse Romney’s actual positions, they’re not really so different from Obama’s on a range of these issues. One actual difference concerns the distinction between a “nuclear capable” Iran and an Iran that actually is on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon. But mostly, Romney’s differences are rhetorical—he employs the overheated rhetoric that will incite the Bolton caucus, but, mindful of those swing voters, he then often backs down and notes that war is a very grave matter indeed, and so on.

In this context, the competition for projecting trust may be between the one who wants to sound reluctant but not weak (Obama) and the one who wants to sound tough but not crazy (Romney). You’d think, given the last 10 years, that voters want the former. Happily, I think they do. This is maybe another big divide between those of us inside the Beltway and those in actual America. Pundits’ kids aren’t fighting in any wars, unless you call the soccer match between Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day School a war. Americans’ kids are. Thus, pundits are going to be far more likely to endorse the Romney bellicosity than Americans, I think. Especially mothers.

Obama needs to be ready again for a new Benghazi offensive from Romney. The latter will know he blew it last time. He’ll have his chronology down pat this time. And he’ll presumably be ready with some kind of response when Obama does his “that’s offensive” moment. This is going to be another high-testosterone showdown set piece. The side that wins here will be the one, I’d imagine, that anticipated the other side’s parry and came up with an effective counter-thrust.

China will be big. This will be an opportunity for Obama to score, what with all the Bain-related China material out there, and if he doesn’t, he will have missed a chance. This is mostly a phony issue, of course, because all challengers say they’re going to crack down on China, and none ever does, really, although the Obama administration has taken some steps. But Obama ought to be able to say that the guy who has sent jobs to China probably can’t be counted on.

The sitting president is always favored to win the foreign policy debate because he has done stuff (yep, we’ll hear about bin Laden) and he knows stuff that the other guy hasn’t done and doesn’t know. But he has to use his precious minutes to communicate that. Obama’s communication in these debates has been spotty. Even in the second one, he missed some clear shots—for example, his failure to note that Paul Ryan voted against the equal pay act.

And the larger context of the polls is that it’s still by no means clear that the swing toward Romney after the first debate has ended. It’s slowed, but it isn’t clear that it’s ended. Obama can end it—or reignite it. It’s all about what he projects.