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.
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.
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.