The first thing to jump out at viewers about the final presidential debate was the dog that didn???t bark: Benghazi. Mitt Romney made a clear and conscious decision not to bring it up. This came as a surprise to those who expected him to take advantage of Obama???s deteriorating position on the Benghazi debacle. It was so obvious that it has to be characterized as a deliberate strategic choice, rather than a ???missed opportunity.???
Why did Romney turn away from this? Did he think Obama???s already stewing in his own juices, and there was no reason to bring it up in the debate? Was it just that Romney had other fish to fry, and didn???t want to waste time getting bogged down in a topic that Obama would have filibustered?
If Romney wanted to invest his energy elsewhere, it was surely in the connection between America???s domestic strength and foreign policy, a topic he commanded masterfully. His best moments came when discussing the connection between American economic productivity, the maintenance of a strong military, and the projection of diplomatic power around the world. Several times, Romney referred to Obama???s wild spending binges and stagnant economy putting us on ???the road to Greece.???
For his part, Obama offered a few more of his insincere encomiums to the wonderful power of free markets, which he apparently thinks work everywhere except America. He probably thinks he’s stealing a march from the Right when he talks like this, but in truth, he just comes off as silly and pandering. If there’s one thing about Obama’s philosophy that his term in office makes clear, it’s that he regards the free market as a hostile frozen tundra filled with predators, not the fertile soil from which innovation and growth emerge.
When it came time to discuss military spending, Romney was in command of facts and figures. Obama said something about horses and bayonets. The President also tried a patronizing line about how ???aircraft carriers are ships that carry planes,??? which is far too snarky to sound good coming from a presidential candidate, never mind the sitting President. Romney carefully avoided that sort of thing, instead expressing himself as a commanding presence a few times during the debate, including one exchange where he twice admonished the President to silence because ???I???m still speaking.???
Obama???s most memorable line about military cuts was insisting that sequestration ???will not happen.??? But it is happening. He???s mostly just trying to divert public attention from its effects until after the election, as when he pressured military contractors into violating federal law by holding off on issuing layoff notices.
Romney remains better about saying things that will hold up after the debate, beneath the cold light of fact-checking and media analysis. He clearly bested Obama on two important issues in this regard: the status of forces agreement in Iraq, and the GM bailout.
Romney???s strategy appeared to involve sealing the deal for his candidacy by appearing presidential. He didn???t make arguments just for the sake of argument ??? he was willing to say when he agreed with something Obama had done. (Obama kept trying to turn this against Romney with a childish refrain of ???I???m glad to see the Governor agrees with me now,??? which sounded bratty.)
This approach caused Romney to leave some cards lying on the table. He never mentioned Operation Fast and Furious, which most definitely had foreign policy ramifications. He did not challenge Obama???s heroic narrative about taking charge of the situation in Libya ??? in reality, Obama was a passive bystander, dragged into the conflict by Hillary Clinton and the French. He didn???t talk about the rather shaky job the Obama Administration has been doing when it comes to identifying the Syrian resistance, or how weapons from Qaddafi???s arsenal are turning up in the hands of Hamas terrorists.
But Romney did hammer Obama hard on his global ???apology tour,??? and his relationship with Israel. Both of these exchanges made Obama seem testy and defensive. If Romney had remembered to mention how Obama got caught describing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a ???liar??? with then-French president Sarkozy on an open mike, he might have been able to make Obama blow his stack completely.
Iran policy remains a point of interest. Romney wisely agreed that sanctions have been doing a lot of damage to the Iranian economy, but laid out a logical case for tightening those sanctions and isolating Iran through diplomatic pressure. The problem with current Iran policy is that there isn???t much evidence the mullahs are close to giving up their nuclear ambitions ??? their economy is hurting, but those centrifuges are still spinning.
On Afghanistan, the debate is still shaped by the general desire of Americans to get out of that hellish corner of the Earth. Romney clearly understood the situation in Pakistan much better than Obama, and had a better grasp of the strategic realities of American withdrawal. Obama remarkably insisted that Afghans are capable of defending their own country now, which is almost delusional. Romney???s quite right about the Taliban strength preparing to surge back across the border from Pakistani safe havens once American forces have departed. These Romney strengths are considerably mitigated by the fact that most American voters really don???t want to have a better understanding of the strategic realities in Afghanistan. They just want out.
One noteworthy outgrowth of the Afghanistan debate was Obama???s repeated use of the phrase ???nation building at home.??? He clearly thinks this is clicking with some segment of the electorate, but it has a real fingernails-on-a-blackboard quality to it. America is not a Third World nation that needs squads of soldiers building up its settlements. Does Obama literally intend to use troops on American soil the way they???d be used for nation-building in an impoverished Third World nation? If not, what does he mean by this empty phrase, beyond ???I???m going to cut the military and blow the money on more of my Big Government programs????
Romney???s focus on the relationship between the domestic economy and foreign policy, delivered through a strong final answer and closing statement, brought the debate, and the election, back around to its core issue: Obama has a record of horrible failure, and there???s no way he can spin it to look like success. This election has always been about the electorate deciding if Mitt Romney is an acceptable replacement for the man they really want to fire. He was looking that way going into the final debate, and he will look at least as good to most undecided voters and persuadable Democrats coming out.
Romney spent the final debate talking about the issues, while Obama spent it talking about Romney. Incumbents get re-elected by selling a successful record to the voters, and Obama has not been able to do that. Even his big foreign-policy talking point, the death of Osama bin Laden, doesn???t get him much traction, because he???s never been able to persuade voters that he was uniquely capable of making that decision.
Romney also made a powerful argument for his superior ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats, emphasized with particular grace during his discussion of education reform during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. Conservatives understandably squirm when they hear talk of ???bipartisanship,??? because in practice, it so often means ???surrender to liberals.??? But the inescapable truth is that there will still be Democrats in power after this election, even if it goes very badly for them at both the presidential and congressional levels.
Obama???s blame-everyone, go-to-the-back-of-the-bus style has proven he can???t work effectively with the opposition party. Few American voters have forgotten how ObamaCare was shoved down their throats. Obama has no one but himself to blame for the aura of arrogance and hubris surrounding him. And even though it wasn???t discussed extensively tonight, his chances of running for re-election as a foreign policy genius burned to the ground in Benghazi.
Those who watched the debate live saw a generally presidential Romney, and a frequently petulant Obama. Those who read about it tomorrow will see Romney???s statements holding up better, in those areas where he sharply disagreed with Obama. Those who primarily care about domestic issues heard Romney talk about changing course, and Obama offering more of the same??? mixed with another dose of that curious Empty Chair attitude, in which Obama speaks as though he hasn???t been sitting in the Oval Office for the past four years.