1. Of course, the Benghazi debacle will be front and center. Romney must present a comprehensive indictment of Obama’s failures in Benghazi, both in the period leading up to the September 11 attacks, and during the cover-up afterward. Romney should not have any difficulty anticipating and countering Obama’s defenses and evasions, since they’ve all been extensively field-tested in the media.
This is not a good time to focus on a single Obama remark, as Romney did during the previous debate, when Obama’s Rose Garden speech was extensively dissected. Some observers thought Romney was putting down a marker for himself to refer back to in the final debate. If that’s the case, it would be best not to rely upon it too heavily. There’s a lot to talk about, beginning with the way Obama and his spokespeople began pushing the false “spontaneous video protest” narrative after that Rose Garden speech.
Hillary Clinton did Romney a favor by stepping forward to take responsibility for Benghazi, in a rather limited and lawyered fashion, on the eve of the second debate. Romney might well ask why Obama didn’t seem very interested in claiming any responsibility until Hillary went first. That cuts right to the core issue of leadership and accountability. Romney can promise that he won’t run an Administration that has no idea what its own State Department is up to, or which can be flummoxed by a single “faulty intelligence report”… on the rare occasions that the President decides to actually attend a national security briefing.
2. The Benghazi incident reflects a broader pattern of Obama’s disinterest in national security. He doesn’t make decisions; he gives speeches. Even the one truly popular foreign policy decision Obama has made, green-lighting the bin Laden kill, was not at all the thunderclap of bold leadership Obama’s hagiographers portray it as, and the process of locating bin Laden was carried out despite Obama’s policy preferences. Romney should discuss Obama’s conduct of foreign policy and national security in detail, with each criticism strongly backed up by firm details.
Timelines of various foreign policy crises should be memorized, something Romney is generally very good at. He should bring up “gaffes” such as Obama’s hot-mike “flexibility with the Russians” and “Netanyahu is a liar” misadventures. And he should be ready to dig deep – all the way back to Obama’s handling of the Iranian “Green Revolution” and Honduran leadership crisis in 2009.
3. As a matter of style, Romney should avoid the temptation to create “gotcha” moments for Obama. That really didn’t work in the second debate. It rarely does – most top-shelf politicians are fairly good at avoiding campaign-destroying concessions under intense verbal pressure. Romney’s attempt to make Obama explain where his pension plan investments are going, during the second debate, was an example of a solid point lost in a cloud of ineffective theatrics.
That “pension plan” moment was all about China. Romney surely knows that Obama will hit him over China, and Romney wants to hit back. Romney should do it with a calm presentation of facts and figures. Voters will respond well to a sober presentation of the overall geo-strategic challenge presented by China, rather than intense focus on something like currency manipulation. People tune into foreign policy debates to see Big Pictures, not the picking of nits.
4. Romney should stress the connection between foreign and domestic policy. Economic weakness at home reduces American influence abroad, while events overseas can have a profound impact on the American economy. This has always been part of Romney’s foreign policy approach, but emphasizing it during the third debate will give him one last chance to put a few criticisms of Obama’s domestic policy shortcomings before the voters. It will also help neutralize Obama’s “bin Laden is dead and GM is alive” talking point.
Everything from the exercise of “soft power,” to the maintenance of American military strength, is tied to America’s economic productivity. Every aspect of our global influence is compromised by weakness at home. Last week, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heard to remark that America’s national debt would soon erase us from the list of great global powers. Obama’s flabby Leviathan is cruising for a heart attack, and foreign leaders have noticed that it’s having trouble heaving its bulk off the couch. It’s not good to hear both friends and foes openly planning for the post-American world.
5. It’s a cliche to encourage candidates to provide more details during debates, and Obama seems to be skating by without much media pressure for more details about his second-term agenda, but Romney really should be prepared to offer specific policy proposals.
It’s no secret that Americans are generally weary of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re worried about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but also worried about getting dragged into a larger Middle Eastern conflict. They will want to hear something more specific from Romney than the sort of broad “I will restore America’s standing in the world” that virtually every challenger offers.
Romney would also do well to remind voters that Obama hasn’t done a very good job of keeping his own specific promises from the 2008 campaign, notably including the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay. He should portray his own commitments on foreign policy as serious elements of a reasonable strategy, as opposed to Obama’s insincere pandering to various constituencies.
To put it bluntly, people want to know what Mitt Romney would do differently as Commander-in-Chief, and they want to know why he would do those things differently. If Romney wants to pursue a different strategy in Afghanistan, he has to realize that a great deal of the country just wants to get out of there – they need some convincing that America’s “gains” in that terrible place can be protected, or that there are gains worth protecting. In an election heavily based on domestic affairs, it’s understandable that much of the electorate hasn’t been following international news quite as closely. They could use a little refresher on what’s happening in the European Union, or how the “Arab Spring” has been turning out. Romney should remind them of the stakes in each area of foreign policy, and talk about how he would play his cards.
Perhaps most importantly, voters seek competence in this election – a sense that the candidate understands the challenges America faces, and has concrete plans for dealing with them. During the Republican primary, the candidates who didn’t seem informed and reasonable about foreign affairs were knocked out of contention. Given that the momentum in this election has shifted in his direction, if Romney can demonstrate himself to be at least as competent as Obama in international affairs, he will win this final debate. The Benghazi disaster has given him an opening to do much better than achieve a momentum-preserving tie.