To paraphrase an oldie but a goodie: "What if they had a debate and nobody read the agenda?" Tonight's debate was, ostensibly, supposed to be on foreign policy. However, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama decided fairly early on that the differences between the two policy-wise were pretty small, so they both decided to hijack the foreign policy debate and instead just continue the debates on the economy, instead.
OK, that's a snarky overstatement, but still....
As to who won the debate, the answer to that is easy: "Who cares, the San Francisco Giants are going to the World Series!" Ahem. No, wait, that can't be right... let me refer to my notes here....
All kidding aside, though, I thought that both men achieved certain goals tonight, but that the goals Mitt Romney laid out for himself pretty much guaranteed that Barack Obama would be seen as the "winner" of the debate, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the mainstream media agreed. At worst, for either man, the media will declare the third presidential debate a tie and move on to polling obsession. Personally, I thought Obama had a great night and was much more forceful than Mitt Romney, and I thought Obama won on stylistic points as well. But then, as we've seen, because I write these snap judgment columns instantly after the debate finishes (what I think I will dub "procrastiblogging" rather than "liveblogging," just to coin a phrase), often times the honest reaction I have doesn't agree with the conventional wisdom, so we'll just have to wait and see. Also, one caveat before I jump into the fray -- all these quotes are from hastily-jotted notes, and I probably got a few words wrong here and there, but hope I have conveyed the essence of these quotes accurately. Having said that, let's examine the night's debate in detail.
Barack Obama came to tonight's debate loaded with zingers, and he got off one of his finest in the first exchange, after Mitt Romney seemed to somehow blow his opening joke ("funny this time not on purpose?" Um, what?). Obama took Romney to task for calling Russia our biggest foreign threat, and then quipped "The 1980s are calling, they want their foreign policy back," which was admittedly a good zinger.
Mitt Romney's strategy for the entire night seemed to consist of three tactics. The first was to use the word "peace" as much as possible, in an effort to convince America's suburbanites that he wasn't the warmonger he's been playing out on the campaign trail all year. I did cheat and watch five or ten minutes of after-chat, and heard one pundit state "He talked of peace more than George McGovern," which I thought summed it up nicely.
Romney's second tactic was to paint the Middle East as in "tumult," a word Romney used almost as often as "peace." This was apparently a dog whistle to the neo-conservatives of some sort, which can best be translated as: "Obama's soft on TERROR, I will be strong strong strong on TERROR and things will be wonderful." Or something, I don't speak fluent neo-con, I must shamefully admit.
Romney's third tactic was deployed several times, but it never really worked, in my opinion. This was to turn to the president and say "Attacking me isn't a foreign policy." Unfortunately for Romney, this never really worked, since Obama quite obviously does have a foreign policy, whether you agree with it or not. This may be due to Romney spending too much time in the right-wing media echo chamber, but that's just a guess on my part.
Romney made several stumbles throughout the evening, such as starting off with a strong "My strategy is to go after the bad guys," and then revisiting this at the end of the debate with "we've got to do more than killing bad guys." Yes, the man seems to have flip-flopped in the same debate. Romney also, oddly, stated that the United States only has "42 allies" in the world (although I may have copied that number down wrong, this came about 20-30 minutes in). Romney also had a mini-gaffe early on when he said "if I'm president" which he quickly corrected to the standard "when I'm president."
Obama, throughout the night, looked awfully presidential, but then incumbent presidents always have a natural advantage over challengers in foreign policy debates. Presidents don't just have advisors and read white papers, they actually have to deal with the rest of the world, and four years of such experience usually shows through. As it did tonight.
While Bob Schieffer didn't let things get too far off into the weeds at the beginning (notably, on the Libya/Benghazi issue), later on in the evening he seemed to either go to sleep or get cowed by Romney's constant squabbling with him over the rules (as Romney has done in every single debate so far). Schieffer wasn't as bad as Jim Lehrer in the first debate, but the argument for handing the journalistic baton over to a much younger generation of moderators seems to be, from where I'm sitting, a very convincing one to make right about now.
Barack Obama, quite notably, stood up for his record this evening, on foreign policy and beyond. He defended his actions around the world consistently, and forcibly called Romney out on another bit of nonsense from the right-wing-o-sphere: the so-called "apology tour." Obama fans have been waiting for a long time to hear someone smack this down, as Obama masterfully did tonight, to all except loyal consumers of Fox News.
Mitt Romney attempted to walk back some chest-thumping from earlier in his campaign, and seemed much more subdued than your average Republican politician on the whole "what to do about the rest of the world" issue. Romney -- a Republican, mind you -- even stated that the United States of America "should not dictate to other countries" which pretty much contradicts Republican policy for the last 50 years or so. Because of Romney's new "Peace On Earth" stance, and because of his new-found positions (on such things as perhaps not sending Americans into Syria), for most of this foreign policy debate the two candidates agreed more than they disagreed. This was indeed a bizarre turn of events -- on question after question, Romney would announce a position or two he's taken, and then Obama would respond with some version of "I'm glad you support what we're already doing." The hair-splitting necessary to show daylight between the two was downright Jesuitical, at times (if that's even a word). Obama even pointed this out at one point, noting that Romney seemed to be in favor of saying and doing what Obama has already said and done, just "saying it louder."
The biggest points of contention in the evening were probably on two stock lines Romney's been using on the stump. Romney looked rather shocked when Obama smacked both of them down forcefully. The first came with some inexplicable Romneyism about how our Navy is somehow "smaller than it has been since 1917." Um, what? What are you talking, Mitt, number of ships or something? Here's the way I would have smacked that down: "So, Mitt, if you took charge of America's Navy circa 1917, and I took charge of today's modern Navy, who do you really think would win a conflict between the two? Be honest." Here's how Obama brilliantly smacked it down, instead, in the best zinger he had all night: "We have ships that planes can take off from and land on... they're called aircraft carriers. We have ships that can go beneath the waves... they're called nuclear submarines. We have fewer horses and bayonets now, than we did in 1916, too."
The second major scuffle was when Barack Obama took exception to the whole "apology tour" lie, starting off with "Nothing Romney said is true." He invited America to see what the fact checkers had to say about that, and called it Romney's "biggest whopper."
About the only new idea from Mitt Romney tonight was to get an indictment for Iran's Ahmadinejad, for "genocide" because of the "words he has said." This was a head-scratcher, but at least it was a new and unique idea on the table. Not exactly something that's going to win Mitt a whole lot of votes, but it certainly is a unique thing to attempt, as I've never heard the suggestion before tonight.
Barack Obama occasionally got very serious, and almost crossed over into "pissed off" a few times during the evening, as when he spoke of his trip to Israel, where "I didn't take donors along, and I didn't hold fundraisers," which Romney (quite wisely) didn't attempt to contradict, since Obama was right.
Obama also picked up on Romney's new non-neo-con foreign policy stances, and hit Mitt hard on positions he's previously taken, versus positions he was now espousing. Obama kept repeating phrases like "you've been all over the map" to paint Romney as a weathervane, turning whichever way the winds were blowing on the campaign trail -- to quite good effect. The most effective one of these all night was Obama using Romney's words against him with: "It was worth moving Heaven and Earth to get Osama Bin Laden!"
At some point, however, both candidates decided that they were so close together on foreign policy positions that they'd just start debating the economy again. This was an attempt by both men to strongly make the point: "We can't be strong worldwide unless America is strong at home." Neither man really hit this one out of the park, I thought, although they both tied up a few loose ends from previous debates, and got all the zingers in they had left previously lying on the table. Their debate coaches will be proud, to put this another (more snarky) way.
Obama visibly got under Romney's skin once on the economy, over the whole "let Detroit go bankrupt" issue. Romney's strongest line of the night might have been: "I'm a son of Detroit, my dad ran a car company," although Obama certainly had the facts on his side on this one. This election may come down to Michigan and Ohio, and Mitt Romney may have torpedoed his chances in these states by that Wall Street Journal opinion piece he wrote in the midst of Detroit's dimmest days. Obama countered strongly as well, with: "The people of Detroit do not forget."
As expected, there were some moments where everyone was talking at once. Obama seemed a tad more interrupt-ey when it came to speaking over Romney, while Romney seemed to save this mostly for stomping on the moderator talking.
I have no idea what the split-screen effect will show, as I thought Romney looked smug with a smirk on his face quite often, but then again I always think that about him, so that's probably my own bias talking ("full disclosure" and all of that...).
Both men attempted to trot out their "I met a guy on the campaign" stories, but for some reason they both seemed a little flat this time around. Maybe it's because foreign policy isn't the best venue for this sort of thing, I don't know. Obama's story of the 9/11 victim seemed particularly over the top here, but then what do I know? I'm a bigger fan of the wonky stuff than the soft-and-fuzzy stuff, so I'll leave this for others to decide.
Both men had pretty good closing statements, but again I think Obama had an edge in the whole "talking into the camera -- right to the American people" thing, but that may have just been on stylistic points. Or my aforementioned bias.
Going in to the debate, Barack Obama wanted to spotlight his foreign policy victories. Mitt Romney wanted to "appear presidential" and not appear to be a warmonger whose puppet strings were firmly in the grip of the Republican cabal that got us into Iraq. Both men, I would say, adequately achieved their goals. Because Romney's goal was to appear meeker, he seemed dominated by Obama for much of the night. It's hard to dominate when your goal is to appear peaceable and non-threatening, I suppose. Both men also had the goal of getting in their "last licks" on the state of the economy, and both men achieved trotting out their talking points in this regard -- even though the subject wasn't supposed to be on the agenda tonight.
But I go back and re-read what I've written here, and the more I consider it, the more tonight seemed like a clear victory for Obama. Neither man fell on his face or quite obviously "lost" the debate, but I have to say upon reflection, Obama clearly won.
The real question is who's going to win in two weeks, though, so let's all keep focused on that, going forward.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant