President Obama accused Mitt Romney of “wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map” at their final debate Monday night, while Romney took a strikingly sober and subdued approach in response.
Uncorking a half-dozen attacks within minutes as his rival sat across the table in Boca Raton, the president tried to eviscerate Romney on foreign policy. He said the Republican wanted to leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, had sent mixed signals on withdrawing from Afghanistan and proclaimed America’s top enemy to be Russia.
In an obviously rehearsed line, Obama said Romney was peddling “the foreign policy of the 1980s,” “the social policy of the 1950s” and “the economic policy of the 1920s.”
Romney defended himself in the most measured tones. His only initial swipe was recalling that Obama had told Vladimir Putin that he would have more flexibility in dealing with the Russian leader after the election. And in a not-so-subtle effort to distance himself from the last Republican president, Romney said, “We don’t want another Iraq.”
This was not the Mitt Romney of the first or second debate. Sounding like a political scientist at times, he had clearly made a calculation that playing it safe and demonstrating world knowledge were sufficient in a race in which many polls are trending his way. He steered clear of anything that might be interpreted as an aggressive call to action.
Romney thus stuck to generalities and platitudes—he would “go after the bad guys,” he was worried about a “rising tide of chaos”—without drawing bright lines on what he would do differently than the administration.
In fact, Romney congratulated the president on the killing of Osama bin Laden, said he supported what Obama had done in helping prod Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt and does not favor military intervention in Syria. He also said he would complete the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in 2014 and acknowledged that the surge there—Obama’s surge—“has been successful.”
It was a rope-a-dope strategy in which Romney had his gloves up but left little substantive distance between himself and his rival.
By the half-hour mark, Romney was getting so little traction on foreign policy that he pivoted to the domestic economy and how America is heading on “the road to Greece.” Obama followed suit, talking about the need for smaller class sizes.
Even when asked by moderator Bob Schieffer about Obama’s charge that his policies were “wrong and reckless,” Romney briefly chuckled and said, “I’ve got a policy for the future.” In diplomatic terms, it was as if only one of the contenders had signed a non-aggression pact.
Schieffer essentially let the candidates hijack the debate at times, pushing the conversation toward budgets and business.
Obama set the agenda throughout the evening. On the nuclear threat posed by Iran, the president said sanctions were “crippling their economy” and that Romney has “often talked as if we should take premature military action.” Romney engaged in a bit of me-tooism—he called for crippling sanctions five years ago—and said military action would be a “last resort.” He rarelh changed expression, as if getting mad, or even annoyed, was against the rules.
Two-thirds of the way into the debate, Romney said Obama had promised to “meet with all world’s worst actors” and had conducted an “apology tour.” But it was more of a jab than a roundhouse right. And the president parried by calling the apology charge “the biggest whopper” of the campaign.
Just when things were calming down, the president circled back to the mission against Osama, recalling that Romney said it wasn’t worth moving “heaven and earth” to get the al-Qaeda leader—and then recalling a girl telling him of her last conversation with her father as the World Trade Center was collapsing. That was a line George W. Bush might have delivered.
It was easy to miss the fact that after a generation of playing defense on national security, the Democrats, at least for now, have the upper hand on the issue.
The challenge for Romney was the actual differences between the two men are slight when it comes to such thorny global issues as Iran and Afghanistan.
The candidates had very different goals heading into Monday night’s faceoff. Obama had to defend his four-year record and defuse the inevitable criticism of the administration’s handling of the Libya attack. Romney had to present himself as a plausible commander-in-chief in an arena that, given his inexperience, is hardly his greatest strength.
The Boca Raton debate had the potential to be the least influential of the three, in part because of the focus on foreign policy—a decidedly backseat concern in this campaign—and also because of the competition from the baseball playoffs and Monday Night Football. Obama apparently won the debate, but probably did little to change the campaign narrative in the final stretch.