23 October 2012
And with the Lynn University stoush over, that's it for the debates. Some thoughts on the third and final presidential meet-up:
- Obama made his name as a national candidate on foreign policy, and that was no accident. The President knows his stuff on this front. He moved comfortably from subject to subject, speaking knowledgeably and naturally about whichever topic Mitt Romney or moderator Bob Schieffer brought up. The candidate of whom Democrats first took notice because he had the sense to oppose the Iraq War from the beginning maintained an advantage he has had on foreign policy since he first began campaigning for the presidency. And that's an advantage that allowed him to defeat Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Mitt Romney, whatever his other strengths, is no Clinton or McCain.
- In contrast, Romney has always been most vague on foreign policy. Some of his worst moments (the London Olympics comment, the analysis of Israeli and Palestinian "culture") came on his international tour, and, as Obama pointed out tonight, he's described Russia as the United States's number one geopolitical foe. His biggest criticism of the President on foreign policy has been the fiction that he undertook an "apology tour" — a fiction that fact checkers continually and unequivocally debunk. In tonight's debate, Romney needed to show he could hold his own on these issues. He didn't do that.
- It made sense that, as he did in previous debates, Romney tried to move to the centre. The only way foreign policy might shift votes in this election is if Romney looked too erratic or volatile, and moderating his stance on Afghanistan (shifting from consult the generals, don't announce a timeline to we'll definitely be out by 2014) reduced the perceived riskiness of a Romney administration. On the other hand, it meant that Romney ended up agreeing with the president a lot of the time, blunting his ability to criticise him. And on issues over which Obama could have been criticised — his approach in Afghanistan, for instance, or action in Libya — Romney showed too few points of difference.
- Romney's critique of Obama's approach often amounted to a criticism of the president's tone, rather than anything he's done. Swaggering proclamations of American values and cowboy pugnaciousness might play to many American's conceptions of their own country, but nostalgia for the rhetoric of George W. Bush isn't a foreign policy doctrine.
- There was a drones question! Libertarians, vexed liberals, and any Ron Paul supporters not included in either group can celebrate! Romney, unsurprisingly, supports the use of drones as much as Obama does. As always, though I think there are definitely problems with the way the US uses drones — deploying them in Yemen, far from any active theatre of war, is a step too far, for instance — no one has told me why being killed by a drone is worse than being killed by a conventional weapon. The debate about drones is rarely illuminating anyway, and it really wasn't going to be informative tonight.
- The "China" portion of the discussion was, if anything, even less satisfactory than the rest of it. Both candidates, who, in general, believe in free trade, talked like committed protectionists. Possibly the lowest point in this regard was the President bragging that, in effect, he'd saved Americans from having to buy inexpensive tyres.
- Obama continued to make up for his lack of fight in the first debate. Supporters of the president had plenty of one liners to chuckle over tonight. At our event here at the Centre, the President's rejoinder to Romney talking up the need for a bigger navy drew a big laugh: "You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed."
- That said, though, that was one of the better moments on the night. The candidates have differing opinions on the size of the military, and it's rare in US politics for anyone to say the country's defence force doesn't need to bigger. Good on Obama for at least gesturing toward the need to cut spending on this front.
- The first of two notable turns of phrase: Obama said that sequestration "will not happen." That was newsworthy and it would be good to hear more about Obama's stance on the automatic and unpleasant budget cuts currently scheduled for the end of the year. Nonetheless, all he did really was enunciate a truth that until now had gone unspoken. No one in Washington wants sequestration to occur — not permanently, anyway. Still, it's good to hear some suggestion of where the president's head is at on this.
- The other unspoken truth that tonight was spoken was Obama's description of China as "both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it's following the rules." The US doesn't usually use language as bluntly antagonistic toward China as "adversary," and it's actions suggest that "potential partner" better reflects its thinking. Still, there's long been some adversarial nature to their relationship, and even if international relations watches regard Obama using those words as significant, voters won't.
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