I prepared for writing about the third debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney by reading about North Korea, Iran, Syria, the European Union, Mexico, Cuba, you name it -- well every place except Mali -- but I could have better spent my afternoon reading a novel or taking a walk. The candidates spent almost no time debating the substance of foreign policy. When they could, they detoured into domestic policy. I know I am supposed to say who won the debate, but I don’t think this was a conventional contest. Both candidates wanted to accomplish certain things; and they pretty much succeeded. And that goes for Romney, too, who many commentators think lost the debate.
Since the summer, Romney has been trying to play Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election between Reagan and Carter. If you close your eyes and listen to Romney telling Obama, “Attacking me is not an agenda,” you’ll hear the voice of Ronald Reagan in 1980 responding to Carter’s repeated criticisms. I would bet that Romney has listened repeatedly to that debate and attempted to emulate Reagan’s avuncular, reassuring, self-confident, witty style. Romney even made several awkward attempts at humor during this debate.
Romney adopted part of the Reagan script during the summer – his campaign people were talking about it at the convention – but he failed then to grasp what was essential to Reagan’s victory that year. During the summer, Romney adopted three elements of Reagan’s 1980 script; 1) the question, are you better off now than you were four years ago, 2) the charge America is falling behind, and needs to regain world leadership, and 3) the insistence that contrary to one’s opponent, Americans are not suffering from malaise, and America has nothing to apologize for. In the last month, Romney even found in the Benghazi terrorist attack a surrogate from Republican charges in 1980 that Carter was bungling the Iranian hostage crisis.
But unlike Reagan in 1980, Romney failed to understand what Reagan, the former Democrat, knew very well: that a Republican candidate who has won the nomination by appealing to his party’s right-wing base must move to the center – and do so decisively. In 1980, Reagan chose George H. W. Bush (who was seen as a moderate) as his vice-president and even declared his support for the government bailout of Chrysler. Reagan used his debate with Carter to remove the impression that he was a warmonger who wanted to start World War III.
By countering the impression that he was an extremist, Reagan made himself an acceptable alternative to Carter, who had become very unpopular and whose candidacy was being sustained by the electorate’s fear of Reagan. Romney clearly didn’t understand that when he chose Paul Ryan, a right-winger who wants to replace Medicare, rather than Ohioan Rob Portman as his vice-president; or when he made blowhard Chris Christie his convention keynoter. But during the first debate, Romney finally began to move to the center, and in this last debate, he did so decisively.
Anyone listening to Romney’s speeches during the primary or reading his foreign policy White Paper would have heard the drums of war: Russia was the number one enemy, the U.S. should ready its missiles for an attack on Iran; Islamic terror is as great a threat as ever. But in this debate, Romney did everything he could to distance himself from these statements and speeches. For instance, he said of the challenge of Islamic terror, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Or in reference to George W. Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy, he said, “We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.”
When Romney made specific recommendations, they were meant to appeal to specific constituencies. When he called for increasing spending on the navy, he was appealing to voters in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. When he promised to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, he was appealing to voters in Ohio. Almost nothing that he said could be taken as evidence of what he would actually do as president.
Obama is actually following a strategy similar to Carter’s, but, with the exception of the first debate, doing it much better than Carter did. Obama has wanted to turn attention away from the nation’s economy, which is still faltering, and which Obama promised to fix, onto Romney’s callous indifference to the 47 percent and, in the case of Romney’s foreign policy, to his “wrong and reckless” recommendations.
Obama did that very well in the debate, and had the line of the night in responding to Romney’s proposal for an enlarged navy. “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Obama said. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed.”
But that exchange between Romney and Obama also sums up why there was probably not a winner in this debate. If there were voters out there who were looking for the candidate with the better understanding of defense policy, or the candidate who has the superior wit, then Obama certainly got the better of that exchange. But if a voter was primarily concerned with keeping Virginia’s shipyards open, then Romney may have done better. The first debate changed the trajectory of the campaign; I doubt whether this debate will.