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Election 2012

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (Win McNamee/AP Pool)

For Mitt Romney, the big news to come out of the third and final presidential debate is that there isn’t any big news coming to come out of the debate.

Though his strategy may have startled some Republicans initially, it became evident quickly that Romney was going to use his 90 minutes, and a debate about the more esoteric (to many American voters) topic of foreign policy, to make his case that he was, indeed, presidential. Romney and his advisors apparently believed his candidacy had evolved to this next level – one that is essential to win the presidency and that many before him, like John McCain, never achieved.

Romney remained disciplined for most of the evening, though staying on this strategic course would not be easy.

It was in Romney’s best interest to avoid the small-ball that could have eaten up swaths of this precious final opportunity to talk directly to the electorate. Romney remained disciplined for most of the evening, though staying on this strategic course would not be easy.

Moderator Bob Schieffer, whose 40 years of professionalism shined through like a beacon all evening, started off by lobbing Romney a softball – or temptation – about the Benghazi debacle. Romney, stunningly, avoided a direct attack on President Obama, instead going on a riff about al-Qaeda – even mentioning Mali, but not the U.S. embassy in Libya.

As the debate progressed through the challenges posed by Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran, Romney eschewed much of the tough talk to avoid being perceived as a leader who would be anxious to use the military. In political terms, this was wise for a candidate standing before a still war-weary electorate.

Obama attacked his challenger in virtually every response, appearing almost hungry at times to draw Romney into a heated tête-à-tête.

In real terms, it was heartening because it signaled that Romney was effectively managing the neo-cons that tend to find their way into most Republican foreign policy advisory groups – including those of Romney’s campaign – and not buying into their vision for a resurgence of expansive U.S. foreign policy based on the threat of force.
Even when Obama intoned the names of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to try to make the connection for the viewer, Romney ignored him and moved on – back into his realm of foreign policy moderation for the evening.

Obama’s strategy seemed a mirror image of Romney’s. He attacked the challenger in virtually every response, appearing almost hungry at times to draw Romney into a heated tête-à-tête. Strangely, the roles of the two men were reversed from what the norm would dictate. Typically, it’s the challenger who wants to get into the nitty-gritty and draw the other side down to his level. In this case, it was the president.

There are at least three reasons Obama was willing to resort to this combative strategy. First, he may still have a hangover from the first debate, where he appeared weak and disorganized at times. He was not going to settle back into the comfortable President Xanax routine again, particularly after delivering stronger, more focused performance in the second debate.

Next, Obama has to present a foreign policy narrative that distinguishes him from Romney – and he’s having a hard time doing that on the campaign trail. After four years in office, an ‘Obama Doctrine’ never emerged, so there’s no touchstone for the electorate. This is important for the incumbent because myriad threats, shifting alliances, the Arab Spring, and core economic uncertainty have propelled the nation into a new, and frankly confusing, foreign policy rubric. There is no George Kennan-like tome in this era to define our foreign policy and signal to the electorate which ‘side’ to take.

As a consequence, in contrast to most other moments in time, it is relatively easy for Romney as challenger to stay close to Obama on many of these foreign policy issues without turning off his base. By the same token, it was difficult for Obama to put some daylight between himself and Romney during this debate.

A third reason may be that Obama believes the election is trending towards Romney – and it’s been slipping away since the first debate. Thus, Obama realizes he can’t play a nickel defense until Nov. 6. He may have felt he needed to be aggressive to try again to seize some momentum after a flaccid bounce coming off a close victory in the second debate.

The most telling five minutes of the debate were the closing statements – they were a clear microcosm of where this campaign stands today.

Obama presented mostly bullet points that we’ve heard before — blaming the Bush Administration, and attacking his opponent. The soaring “hope and change” days of 2008 are long behind him. He is now a more pedestrian incumbent campaigning for his political life.

In yet another odd twist to the night, Romney’s closing statement seized the mantel of inspirational rhetoric. The challenger talked in stirring terms about his optimism for the nation.

The two personas and methods of reaching the electorate were stark in their differences – as is the choice facing voters two weeks from today.

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Tags: Barack Obama, Election 2012, Mitt Romney

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • L_R_Dunn

    An A List Special Efx team could not make Mr. Romney appear Presidential.

  • massappeal

    Interesting analysis. However, I think you’ve got some assumptions masquerading as conclusions:

    1 – “…it signaled that Romney was effectively managing the neo-cons that tend
    to find their way into most Republican foreign policy advisory groups –
    including those of Romney’s campaign – and not buying into their vision
    for a resurgence of expansive U.S. foreign policy based on the threat
    of force.”

    Not necessarily. It could just as easily have signaled that Romney (having chosen to fill his foreign policy team with neo-cons and W. Bush advisers) was, to put it kindly, soft-pedaling his foreign policy views because he’s pretty sure they’re unpopular with swing voters. (To put it less kindly, Romney may well have been lying about his views.)

    2 – There may be no “Obama doctrine”, but whatever Obama’s foreign policy has been, it’s clearly something that Romney was eager to identify himself with. (Just as he was eager to distance himself from W. Bush’s foreign policy and indeed, from Mitt Romney’s foreign policy pronouncements of recent weeks.)

    3 – Romney’s closing statement may have “seized the mantel of inspirational rhetoric”. It may also have seized the mantel of “desperate candidate doing everything he can to talk down the growing signs of economic growth and recovery that Pres. Obama’s policies have helped make possible”.

  • Dave Lucas

    I understand, and generally agree with, Mitt Romney’s coached attempts to appear calm and presidential. Still, the President’s handling of him throughout the debate should have been called out by Romney, who twice commented that the President’s personal attacks on him do not constitute an international relations agenda, but really said nothing else in response to Obama’s aggressive attacks. When the President made the now infamous “horses and bayonets”, “aircraft carriers” and “submarines” comments, Romney took it like a subordinate and not a leader. What he should have said was, very politely, “Mr. President, you do not need to lecture your political opponents like we’re children; you need to lead. And by the way, it’s pronounced “corpsman”, not ‘corpseman’, and they still use bayonets”.

    • jefe68

      OK I’ve had enough of this nonsense. President Obama did not say the military did not use horses and bayonets. He said they don’t use fewer of them. Romney’s comment about 1917 was absurd and based on a complete lack of even basic military history. The navy has changed a lot since 1917. We now have aircraft carriers and in 1917 the navy used battleships to build task forces. That changed in WW2 as air power took over and in the Pacific the aircraft carrier was crucial to winning the war. The Atlantic was all about huntung U Boats.

  • Steve

    John, another great recap and analysis. It’s interesting that you invoke McCain early on in the piece, because I paid close attention to him on Fox News last night. He was noting how Obama was especially snarky, and said something to the effect of “…I didn’t attack the Community Organizer for having zero foreign policy experience during our debate…but maybe I should have,” which is particularly interesting because Obama’s antagonism of Romney last night was a clear demonstration of his trying to provoke a non-Presidential reaction. The fact that it didn’t, I believe (and agree with you) is the non-news that Romney took out of Boca Raton and hopefully onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

  • BD

    Romney truely is the etch a sketch candidate. Shamelessly so!

  • #1

    Obama sucks Go Mitt Romney

    • jefe68

      What are you, 12 years old? Grow up.

  • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

    What really surprised me was that Bob Schieffer did not ask any questions about “Operation Fast & Furious.” I felt certain that since Sharyl Attkisson at CBS has truly been in the forefront in writing about the scandal, Bob would have been in a unique position to get some solid background input from her about the issue, and that that would have provided the basis for a at least one good solid question.

    Part of any foreign policy debate is the obligation of an incumbent to defend his or her policies, including those that have so demonstrably failed. Schieffer’s failure to address fast & furious in any way, is simply inexcusable.

    The fact is that the issue has been specifically and fully engaged right at the Presidential level because back in June President Obama exercised executive privilege to keep the public from learning many of the sordid details of a program that had resulted in the deaths of numerous people, including many citizens of Mexico, and a United States border patrol officer, Brian Terry.

    Moreover, in late June, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress via a bipartisan vote of 255 – 67 for his refusal to provide related documents, lying and covering up the matter. That was the first time in American history such a sanction had been imposed on a currently seated member of a President’s cabinet.

    That obviously made it a natural for a question, particularly in light of the regionally related issues of immigration, drug trafficking, and other issues related to foreign relations with our closest neighbor to the south. And yet Schieffer just ignored it all.

    Moreover, Mitt Romney has made the issue of increased trade with our neighbors to the south a part of his agenda. A challenger who provides a specific agenda ought to be entitled to have that agenda addressed by at least one question, particularly where the president has gotten away without promulgating any form of agenda for a second term, including on foreign affairs. But somehow he is allowed to skate on that, and the moderator does not even address it.

    So, you really have to wonder exactly what — other than blatant political bias on his part — would have possibly kept Schieffer from addressing any of those related topics at all?

    Of course, it is true that Bob Schieffer has demonstrated a bit of a larboard-leaning bias over the years, including in debate-related situations.

    But you would think that since he will likely be retiring soon, he’d want to go out on a high note rather that with a lingering sense that he had openly played favorites with his last shot as a Presidential moderator.

    • jefe68

      Because it’s not a huge story and the house investigation did come up with anything that tied the White House to that mess. You right wing folks are so desperate. Where the hell were you folks when GW Bush took us into war in Iraq on false claims of WMD’s? I know, you were to busy going on about how exceptional the new American Imperial world was going to be. Well I guess that has not worked out so well now has it.

      • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

        Confucius say:

        “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”

        The White House is already directly tied to the scandal by virtue of the fact that the President has exercised Executive Privilege to keep House investigators from obtaining access to related documentation!

        Do I really need to remind you again as well that the Attorney General of the United States acted in contempt of Congress by refusing to supply requested internal Justice Department documentation in response to a subpoena? The bipartisan contempt vote affirming the finding of contempt — 255 – 67 — was the first time such an action was taken against a sitting cabinet member in our entire history!

        Those two things make it a huge story, by definition.

        Finally, whatever you skewed views are on George Bush and WMD, it obviously has nothing at all to do with this issue.

        Please, try to pay attention.

  • Chris Swasey

    It was clear to me that Romney’s only goal was to get out alive. He didn’t appear Presidential, in the least. He was sweaty, uneasy, and blatantly out of his depth.

    Are your observations satyrical? Because they are humorously off the mark.

    Obama acted properly in attacking the Governors positions, because they are either bad for America, or they describe what we are already doing and what has already happened. Anyone heard of the Friends of Syria?

    Mitt Romney’s candidacy would be a fun joke, if it weren’t being taken so seriously by almost half of Americans. I weep for our nation, when a man so blatantly under-qualified is selected to run for the highest office in our land.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1514862978 John Thibodeau

    This article is a brilliant example of the “Hack Gap” that exists between Republicans and Democrats. First coined by Kevin Drum, it refers to the amazing ability of Republican commentators to accept and fold into their narrative anything their candidate says, and claim that every unintentional misstep is an intentional strategy. Democrats, however, tend to quickly admit failure even where it doesn’t exist, and then spend an inordinate amount of trying to figure out why they just can’t catch a break. Romney recommending a trial at the Hague for Ahmadinejad is glossed over by the Boltons of his party, while Democratic interest groups rage when they aren’t mentioned specifically by name. The same commentators who labeled the second debate routing as a “tie” are now trying to convince us that Romney developed a brilliant strategy that involved parroting the presidents foreign policy almost word for word, and the sweaty, squinty-eyed candidate was merely concentrating on that tactic. Someone else said it here, but it would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious.

    • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

      Speaking of the real “hack gap” it must be a painful eye-opener for you to only now discover what most people with any sense knew was the truth of the matter right from the beginning — that the White House was immediately informed of the nature of the terror attack in Benghazi, and that someone there chose to deliberately mislead and lie to the people of the United States about the incident.

      Because of cables now being leaked, we do know that the President was immediately informed of the nature of the attack, and who had taken “credit” for unleashing it, and, further, that there simply was no demonstration over the movie.

      We also now know that the consequence is that the White House simply cooked up their fanciful story about the demonstration “gone bad,” and that the people of the United States were intentionally lied to days later for political reasons by the President’s United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, either on the direct orders of the President, or at least with his concurrence.

      • massappeal

        We also know that, Dave Weigel at Slate reports, “if you followed the story, you knew that Ansar al-Sharia took credit for the attacks, and that Obama was calling them “acts of terror.”” And the president was doing that almost immediately after the attacks took place.

        http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2012/10/24/the_shocking_world_changing_new_libya_e_mails.html

        • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

          massappeal, Naturally, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that you’d turn to a JournOlist faker like David Weigel as your source of pro-Obama propaganda for responding to my comment. Didn’t you remember that even the WaPo had to fire the guy out of embarrassment over his conflicted machinations in his so-called “covering” of conservatives?

          Turn again to the report from Sharyl Attkisson of CBS demonstrating with the actual publication of the cables, linked in my comment above, showing that at the very moment of the the attack on September 11th, hundreds of people in the national security information chain, including a considerable number of people right within the White House, were notified first hand of the nature of the attack, and within an hour or so were further informed that an al-Qaeda linked organization (Ansar al-Sharia) had taken credit for the attack. Her account is consistent with Eli Lake’s September 26th account, but with the actual proof in the form of the cables.

          Those cables made no mention whatsoever of any demonstration about a movie. That was because there was none.

          The next day, Obama did refer generically to our national policy with regard to acts of terror. But in his comments he did NOT specify that this attack had been a terror attack, as he later falsely claimed to have done during the second debate. And, Candy Crowley was wrong when she suggested that he had during that debate — a remark that she had to walk back later, after the debate.

          Way down in the 10th paragraph of Obama’s comments on the 12th, the President simply said the following:

          “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,
          alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand
          for. “

          That was his only reference to “terror acts” in his comments, and as you can plainly see he did not say that this attack had been an act of terror. That was why Candy Crowley admitted later on that Romney had been right in the main. Remember now?

          If Obama had wanted to do so, he could have simply said something like this: “Make no mistake, this brutal attack was an act of terror.”

          But he didn’t want to say that. Instead — fully five days after the attack — President Obama did send his United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, to appear on all the Sunday talkies on September 16th, to tell the American people — and the families of the victims of this attack — the patently false story that this had likely a case of a spontaneous demonstration against that movie, one that had somehow turned violent. It was the “unruly mob” ruse. That story was flat out false.

          Why did he do that? I suppose we’ll eventually find out when the right people are put under oath. Maybe you have an opinion to offer on that question? Come on! Amuse us, massappeal.

          My guess would be that it was purely political — Obama was not willing to admit that the United States had been humiliated by a terror group on the anniversary of 9/11, by having unleashed a well-planned and brutally executed terror attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, one which the State Department had stupidly made much more vulnerable to attack just one month previously, by specifically refusing to maintain an adequate security force there in order to protect our Ambassador and his staff, and, further, for having turning down written requests for more security in Libya.

          • massappeal

            Thanks for the reply. Like you, I’ve been following this story. Unlike you, I just don’t see that there’s any evidence of scandalous behavior on the part of the Obama administration.

            As heterodox liberal Kevin Drum puts it, “Both Obama and Hillary Clinton talked from the start about the attacks
            being the work of extremist elements. Susan Rice and Jay Carney later
            suggested that there had been protests outside the consulate and that a
            YouTube video had played a role in instigating the attack, but that’s
            because this is what the CIA was telling them at the time. What’s more, to this day there’s still
            evidence that the video played a role. (An opportunistic one, probably,
            but a role nonetheless.) As for the charge that Obama was trying to
            downplay al-Qaeda involvement, that’s not because he was trying to hold
            onto his reputation as the guy who killed bin Laden. It’s because Ansar
            al-Sharia was a homegrown group with virtually no connection to al-Qaeda
            central. There really was no al-Qaeda involvement.”

            http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum

          • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

            There was “no scandalous behavior on the part of the Obama Administration” you say?

            Are you serious?

            Making the decision, in real time, not to go to the aid of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and all those others who were fighting for their lives over a period of hours on the grounds of our consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, was scandalous behavior!

            Hillary Clinton, having watched these horrible events in real time, and knowing that there was no demonstration over the film, nevertheless, a few days later, approached and spoke to the father of Ty Woods at the memorial event, and according to him, she said, “we will make sure that the person who made that film is arrested and prosecuted.” That, my friend, was scandalous behavior.

            Not maintaining an adequate security team for the protection of the diplomatic team in Libya, by allowing Lt . Colonel Andy Woods “site security team” to recently rotate back to the States, despite several pleas to keep it active, was scandalous behavior.

            Do I really need to go on?

          • massappeal

            Thanks for the reply. To answer your questions:

            1- Yes, I am serious. While elements of this situation seem to have been handled (and explained) poorly by the administration, so far I’ve seen no evidence that it’s anything more than that.

            2 – No, I think you’ve made your position clear. Thank-you.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1514862978 John Thibodeau

        Ladies and Gentlemen, I present your hack.

        • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

          If only facts mattered to folks like you.

  • Bill Silverman

    Very insightful observations, particularly that Romney indeed was (and is) more presidential than Obama. In reality, we all know that Obama is a radical community organizer writ large. Very large. In every other regard, he’s a lightweight who has no business being near the Oval Office.

    That having been said, I think Romney has the potential to be a great president.
    He is clearly at this point in his life his own man, witness (as just one example) his keeping at bay of the dangerous neo-cons. Make no mistake, it takes guts to do this.

    No, Romney isn’t perfect, but neither is he a puppet (Dubya) or a panderer (Obama). And no, leaders or potential leaders of this honesty and quality don’t come around very often.
    It’s an opportunity we dare not squander.

    • massappeal

      I’m curious: how do “we all know that Obama is a radical community organizer writ large”?

      In community organizing circles, The Gamaliel Foundation (where Pres. Obama worked for a few years in the 1980s) and other networks like it are known for their insistence on pragmatism and on respect for the religious and cultural values of their members and leaders—most of whom are actively involved in their churches, temples and mosques.

      Since that work, Obama went to Harvard Law School, joined a Chicago law practice, taught constitutional law at the Univ. of Chicago, wrote a (successful) memoir, and built a reputation during his brief tenure in both the Illinois and U. S. Senates as someone willing and able to work effectively with Republicans on a range of issues.

      Also, if Mitt Romney “is clearly at this point in his life his own man”, then why has he spent the last few years regularly and repeatedly adjusting and changing his public views on a whole host of issues? Creating a foreign policy advisory team made up primarily of neo-conservatives and Bush administration veterans is hardly “keeping (them) at bay”, is it?

  • http://twitter.com/Trochilus Trochilus

    massappeal Thanks
    for your interesting response, below.
    Let me address a few of your points, and your “back-up”
    support from Kevin Drum:

    “Unlike you, I just don’t see that
    there’s any evidence of scandalous behavior on the part of the Obama
    administration.”

    “Both Obama and Hillary
    Clinton talked from the start about the attacks being the work of extremist
    elements.”

    “Susan Rice and Jay Carney
    later suggested that there had been protests outside the consulate and that a
    YouTube video had played a role in instigating the attack, but that’s because
    this is what the CIA was telling them at the time.”

    In general, my response to the above
    is: 1) Time to open your eyes and ears,
    and; 2) Stop believing the obvious propaganda being spun by Kevin Drum and
    others in order to protect Obama.

    Publicly lying to the parents of
    those killed in the Benghazi attack, and to the American people, was and is scandalous
    behavior, period.

    Obama ordered Susan Rice to tell
    that bogus story about the supposed spontaneous demonstration gone bad on
    several different TV talkies on the 16th, long after he has seen
    contemporaneous indications that this had been a planned and coordinated terror
    attack on our Consulate.

    “Demonstrators”
    do not carry RPGs, mortar tubes with GPS devices, and AK-47 assault rifles
    around in their back pockets. There was
    no demonstration. It was all planned in advance.

    Rice’s story line was a key link in the
    Administration’s coordinated effort to mislead us all about the causes of that
    planned terrorist attack, and to try to minimize the
    inevitable impact of the public disclosure of deliberate actions that had been
    taken by the State Department, via Hillary Clinton, to cut
    back on the diplomatic security in Libya, including during the immediate time
    period leading up to September 11th.

    Obama also ordered Jay Carney to
    spin and re-spin that palpable nonsense for several days because, as President
    knew, if the truth came out about who they strongly suspected had caused that
    obviously coordinated and well-planned attack, and that his
    State Department had rejected numerous pleas for both maintaining existing
    security there, and additional security requests during the run-up period, in
    spite of a few terror attacks in the immediate area, the heavy price would be
    that both he and Hillary Clinton would be politically finished.

    You cannot separate Rice and Carney
    from the president, as if they were some kind of independent agents! And, Rice
    reports through the State Department.

    They both spoke for Obama and on his
    orders. In fact, Jay Carney continued
    parroting the “spontaneous and unruly mob ruse” for days, while simultaneously
    refusing to address mounting evidence of terror planning, and State Department
    misfeasance on security needs in Libya while there was an ongoing FBI
    investigation, and a State Department review.

    But he didn’t seem to have a
    plausible explanation for why the FBI never even visited the scene of the
    attack for several weeks. CNN
    even found the Ambassadors diary in the rubble, wherein he had written about
    his fears regarding increased terror-related threats. And what was State Department and Carney’s
    idiotic response? Why, they attacked CNN for violating the former Ambassador’s
    privacy!

    More from you:

    ”What’s more, to this day
    there’s still evidence that the video played a role. (An opportunistic one,
    probably, but a role nonetheless.)”

    ”As for the charge that
    Obama was trying to downplay al-Qaeda involvement, that’s not because he was
    trying to hold onto his reputation as the guy who killed bin Laden. It’s
    because Ansar al-Sharia was a homegrown group with virtually no connection to
    al-Qaeda central. There really was no al-Qaeda involvement.”

    My brother (who is several years my
    senior) insists to this day at family gatherings that back when I was just a toddler, I firmly
    believed in the tooth fairy.

    Of course, I gamely try to insist otherwise! And, from time to time, I have challenged him
    to “prove it” . . . with evidence other than his, uhhh . . . “faulty”
    recollection.

    However, friendly banter though it is, I guess I’ve always sensed
    that I would ultimately not prevail in this ongoing exchange, much as I would
    like to believe that I was not so naïve.

    But at least in my case, I can honestly say
    that I’m not engaging in this form of denial in a desperate attempt to lie my
    way past the election, and cover up for State Department and White House misfeasance, as Barack Obama is obviously doing!

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