The New York Times is marking the passing of the three amigos, as they were apparently dubbed by the now-disgraced Gen. David Petraeus, with an elegiac article about their contributions to foreign policy debates. The piece suggests that the three comrades--Senators Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham--represented a bipartisan era in foreign affairs that is passing away. With Lieberman's retirement, so we are told, an era is over.
It's a venerable theme. The notion is that once upon a time there was a golden age when the two parties cooperated with each other to further the national interest. The true story, of course, is more complicated. Fights over foreign policy have always existed. Consider the XYZ affair. President John Adams had asked Thomas Jefferson to act as an envoy to the French. Jefferson refused and focused his efforts on strengthening the nascent Republican party. So much for bipartisanship. Consequently, Adams sent his own three amigos--Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney--to negotiate secretly with the French to put an end to attack upon, and seizures, of, American merchant ships. Adams had to contend with the neoconservatives in his Federalist party--Alexander Hamilton and others--who were champing at the bit for war against the French. At the same time, the irenic Republicans mistrusted Adams' peace feelers, fearful that they were bogus. Even as these disputes percolated, a Quasi-War erupted with France, one that was ended by the Convention of 1800.
The examples of domestic divisions over foreign affairs could be multiplied. It was really after World War II that the myth of bipartisanship took off. It wasn't rooted completely in fancy. Republicans such as the young Congressman Richard Nixon supported the Marshall Plan and Arthur Vandenberg, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, jettisoned his previous isolationism. But during the cold war disputes raged over foreign policy as well. It was hardly a time of comity.
The sight of Lieberman, McCain, and Graham seemed, however, to offer a reminder of better days. But did it really? The truth is that McCain was in some ways less a Republican than a neocon by the late 1990s. McCain began his political career as a traditional Republican realist but then became progressively more enamored of what amounted to neoconservative views, which, after all, had their origins in the Democratic party in the early 1970s, when a group of cold war Democrats became disaffected with their party's drift toward George McGovern. For his part, McCain's unusual saga began in Bosnia where he endorsed American intervention. McCain became increasingly more hawkish toward Iraq and Russia. Now Syria is in his target sights.
But are McCain and Graham about to suffer a loss of prestige? According to the Times, what is at stake may be as much about GOP foreign policy as it is about bipartisanship. At a moment when the GOP has become increasingly isolated as President Obama pursues a more cautious course abroad--no intervention in Syria, withdrawal from Afghanistan--Lieberman's retirement could pull out a vital neoconservative strut:
For Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, the loss of Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, goes beyond personal deprivation and could profoundly affect their ability to influence foreign policy. Though he frustrated many Democrats with his interventionist ideas, Mr. Lieberman gave Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, both Republicans, a veneer of bipartisanship that lent credibility to their policy goals.
If this theory is true, it could have significant implications for Republican Party foreign policy, which has been mesmerized by neocon doctrine for at least a decade. Perhaps the problem with American foreign policy is that there has been too much conformism and not enough dissension in recent years. Might a form of emancipation take place in which a more sober view of American interests replaces the ebullient neocon nostrums?
President Obama is reportedly digging his heels in on nominating Susan Rice to become Secretary of State. It's a strange choice, but then Obama has a history of making questionable selections for high-level officials, particularly when it came to the financial sector. He's apparently bedazzled by establishment credentials, which Rice holds in spades--former Rhodes scholar, Stanford graduate. Throughout her career, Rice has seamlessly ascended the escalator of success. Until now, that is.
With Republican Senators breathing fire over her bungled defense of the administration's reponse to the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, a Rice nomination would simply create a new brouhaha for Obama. Why would he want that? Yes, the charges that Rice willfuly manipulated the evidence are overheated. The blunt fact is that ineptitude rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the public was behind Rice's comments. But the GOP is seizing upon them for political gain, which is what opposition parties do even if foreign-policy professionals recoil at discovering that raw domestic politics often buffet their cozy little world. According to Senator Lindsey Graham,
I’m not entertaining, promoting anybody that I think was involved with the Benghazi debacle. We need to get to the bottom of it. The president has a lot of leeway with me and others when it comes to making appointments, but I’m not going to promote somebody who I think has misled the country or is either incompetent. That’s my view of Susan Rice.
Rice is not worth the fight, and it would be a testament to Obama's obstinacy rather than discernment if he insists on nominating her. His infatuation with her is somewhat mystifying. Her record in New York as United Nations ambassador has been undistinguished. What's more, she has already attraced the ire of neocon circles as she is perceived as hostile to the Jewish state. Is Obama's apparent eagerness to have Rice partly predicated on the notion that she will be more receptive than John Kerry to pursuing a tougher line against Israel?
Kerry, who resembles a human pinstripe, would seem like the more logical choice for Obama. He would win easy confirmation and boasts vastly more experience abroad than Rice. The most daring pick would be Jon Huntsman, who falls into the tradition of Republican mugwumps--the tradition of Elihu Root and Henry Stimson, Republicans who served in Democratic administrations. But then again, Obama may find that he has to wait before he plunges into choosing a new Secretary of State. With the ever-widening David Petraeus scandal, his national security team is melting down. If he insists on tapping Rice, Obama will embolden the GOP to attack him. It would be no small irony if it turns out that there is more bipartisanship in domestic than foreign affairs in Obama's second term.
In the end it wasn't even close. President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the swing states and the Democratic party retained control of the Senate. The results should be a reality check for the GOP--if it's interested in realism. With unemployment exceeding 7 percent, enthusiasm for Obama personally is tepid, but he appears to have created a new multiracial Democratic party that could provide the basis for a kind of Rooseveltian electoral coalition in future elections. He is now only the second Democratic president following World War II to win a second term. His legacy, however, already looks to be far more influential than Bill Clinton's.
Obama will be able to consolidate his health-care victory from his first term as well as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform. Those are two big victories for him. The GOP has also lost the chance to alter the composition of the Supreme Court--Obama may get up to three nominations in his second term. The looming fiscal cliff could also break his way. The fact that the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012 gives him a strong hand in negotiations with the GOP. Republicans would be foolish to underestimate Obama's resolve--fresh off his election, he can campaign across the country for his version of tax and deficit reduction rather than remain stuck in Washington, a Ronald Reagan model that his surrogates are indicating he intends to follow. But another factor is that Obama, says Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus, is more seasoned and ready to compromise:
No matter how strong his base of Democratic voters, Obama needed compromise-loving independents to stick with him too.
And Obama has spent plenty of time in the last few weeks talking with Clinton, a supremely pragmatic president who regularly enraged his party's liberal base whenever he thought a lunge to the right might help him pass legislation through a Republican-held Congress.
Nevertheless, second term presidencies are usually a disaster. What might trip up Obama? Foreign affairs. He has boxed himself into something of a corner on Iran and the possiblity that he will bomb Iran should not be discounted--a move that could trigger fresh upheaval in the Middle East and send oil prices soaring. It's also the case that China's economy is faltering. So is Europe's. Fresh blows to the halting American recovery cannot be precluded.
What about the GOP? It's soul-searching time. A good case could be made that the author, in many ways, of the GOP's problems is William Kristol. Kristol saddled John McCain with Sarah Palin. He's the biggest backer of Paul Ryan, a Washington creature, who is being talked up as a potential presidential candidate in 2016--when was the last time a Congressman won the presidency? And Kristol, of course, has dominated foreign policy debate in the GOP by ceaselessly purveying neocon malarkey about American militarism abroad, but Romney's bluster about a new American century went nowhere. Had Romney shunned the neocon bluster and campaigned as a Massachusetts moderate, he would have posed a much greater threat to Obama than he did.
The temptation, of course, will be to blame Romney, and Romney alone, for the defeat. This is nonsense. Yes, Romney was always an unpromising candidate, but of the Republican primary candidates Romney was the most formidable. The campaign he waged was far superior to John McCain's in 2008. But ultimately the positions that Romney was forced to adopt undid his campaign. He never really recovered from pandering to a base that never fully accepted him. From calling himself "severely conservative" to the Todd Akin disaster, Romney was crippled by the radicalism of the GOP. Texas Senator John Cornyn observed:
It’s clear that with our losses in the Presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party. While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.
Ultimately, the problems afflicting the party are so obvious that they barely require enumeration, from the neocon control of the foreign-policy debate to moralistic flapdoodle about women. This should have been an election that the GOP had a strong shot at winning. Its self-destructive tendencies mean that it didn't. The bottom line is that the Karl Rove model for creating a Republican majority that he boasted about in 2004 is broken. There is no evangelical coalition that can put the GOP over the top. On the contrary, it almost singlehandedly destroyed the GOP's hopes of capturing the Senate. The GOP can reboot or it can follow the model of the Democratic party that lost three straight presidential elections before turning to Bill Clinton in 1992. What will it choose?
In retrospect everyone agreed that it was inevitable that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 presidential election. Barack Obama had been unable to overcome high unemployment figures and his lackluster performance in the first debate, which sowed fears that he wasn't really interested in returning for a second term. His concession speech was graceful but his supporters were in disbelief. Once again a Democrat had failed to win a second presidential term. Bill Clinton's record of being the only postwar president to accomplish that feat was intact.
On the Democratic side rumors immediately began circulating about who would run in 2016. Why had Obama blown it was the big story. But some were beginning to say that Obama had not bungled matters as much as Romney had waged a tough and fierce campaign, persuading voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania to abandon Obama at the last minute. In the end, Romney had been able to capitalize on a vague but pervasive fear that America's best days were behind it and that the country was headed for the skids. It was once again time for a change.
Meanwhile, the Republicans were giddy with success. Romney immediately announced that he would work in as bipartisan a manner as possible. His principal goal, he said, was to restore American leadership at home and abroad. He would not intervene directly in the negotiations between President Obama and the Congress over averting the fiscal cliff, but urged them to reach a compromise. Change, he said, was coming to America.
Will this scenario happen? The odds are slim. The media has all but written off Romney. But Howard Kurtz, writing in the Daily Beast, observes
If Obama somehow manages to lose, it will be a stunning defeat for the nation’s first African-American president. But it will also be a crushing blow for the punditocracy that headed into Election Day filled with confidence that Obama had it in the bag. And Fox News won’t let the mainstream media hear the end of it.
No, it won't. Forget those who claim that this isn't a significant election. Fiddlesticks. The truth is that it represents two fundamentally different governing philosophies when it comes to the economy. And it will have a direct impact on the future of the Supreme Court. If Obama fails to win--and the likelihood is that he will achieve a clear victory--it would be a severe blow to the Democratic party, at least until the 2014 midterms when an increasingly fickle electorate might seek revenge on the GOP. For the most fundamental question may ultimately not be as much about governing philosophies as about the structural problems that America faces. Is either party equipped to confront them?
Usually it is Mitt Romney who is accused of being a shape shifter. But last night President Obama radically altered his persona from the first to the second debate. The result was not a triumph but certainly a comeback for Obama, who succeeded in stopping Romney from painting him as a hapless weakling. Instead, as both contestants bleated on about the importance of the middle class (which will need to see a cut in entitlements, whether or not either candidate wants to say so or not), Obama got in a number of jabs about Romney as plutocrat. Romney's job was to try and move to the center; Obama's, to heighten the differences between the two and portray himself as the last defender of social programs that Romney would savage. The viciousness of the debate was further testament to the polarization of the electorate that has taken place. The debate lacked the kind of decorum that has marked previous ones, and the very attempts to score it show just how far American politics continues to devolve into theater. The hostility on both sides was barely kept in check, with Romney seething with anger and Obama casually contemptuous of his challenger.
Perhaps the main problem for Romney was that the new Romney had already debuted at the first debate. So the media focus was on Obama. Romney committed some blunders, but he hung tough. It was a brutal contest whose brutality will probably be exceeded in the upcoming third debate over foreign affairs next week. If last night was anything to go by, the final debate could be very treacherous ground for Mitt Romney.
Romney veered close to the edge of disaster when he brought up Obama's greatest weakness, which is his handling of Libya. Romney was so fixated with nailing the president as soft on terrorism that he engaged in the "never" mistake—stating that Obama never indicated that an act of terrorism took place—without being dead certain that he was right. He was repeating propaganda, not facts, and he ended up hoisted by his own petard. Here was Romney:
I – I – I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.
MS. CROWLEY: It – he did in fact, sir.
Bluntly put, Romney got carried away in alleging that the president refused to state that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was an act of terror. He was rebuffed by both Obama and the debate moderator Candy Crowley, who did a good job of corralling the two combatants. Romney's better tack would have been to question why Obama got America mired in what amounted to a new war in the Middle East. There remains much that is unclear about Libya, but a similar mistake during the third debate could prove devastating to Romney.
Not surprisingly, Romney was at his strongest in focusing on Obama's performance on the economy. He landed some tough blows against Obama, particularly when it came to the trillions in budget deficits that he's accumulated over the past four years. But Romney should have pursued more aggressively his contention that "government does not create jobs." By spitting out those phrases toward the end of the debate, he risked making himself sound petulant and peevish. Romney also did not do a good job of detaching himself from the record of George W. Bush, which he had to counter. The question about the distinction between Bush and Romney amounted to a softball for Obama, who is continually drawing a direct link between the two. At the next debate Romney could face a simple question from the audience: "Why have you appointed so many neocons as advisers who led America into disastrous wars of choice in the Middle East?"
The bottom line, however, is that the election has tightened and that the debates may no longer significantly affect the results—barring a major gaffe by one of the candidates. Romney has recovered his dignity and become a plausible candidate after floundering for months. But the overall odds, as National Interest editor Robert W. Merry has often pointed out, remain stacked in Obama's favor—he's not mired in a losing war, the economy is haltingly recovering. All Obama needed was a draw last night, and he got more than that.
The clear winner of the debate last night wasn't Joe Biden or Paul Ryan. It was Martha Raddatz of ABC News. She asked both candidates tough questions, sought to keep them on track and brooked no nonsense, in contrast to the hapless Jim Lehrer, who should be forced to watch reruns of all the presidential debates for a month as penance for his lackluster performance. As Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times notes, Raddatz "acted like a working journalist rather than a television personality." The verdict, as Politico reports, seems pretty much unanimous: Raddatz ruled.
As to who came out on top among the two candidates, the verdict is unequivocal. Biden thumped Ryan. Not as badly as Mitt Romney lacerated President Obama during the first debate, but Biden exposed many of the contradictions in Ryan's stances. Foreign policy was especially glaring.
Consider Afghanistan. Here the Romney campaign's attempts to create bogus distinctions and controversies emerged clearly. Biden said "we're leaving" in 2014. Ryan said that he and Romney agree with the date. But they wouldn't commit to it. It would simply embolden the Taliban, he said. So 2014 is supposed to be a secret? Either we're leaving or we're not. Biden pounced. Ryan left himself open to the impression that Romney would stay on in Afghanistan—a deeply unpopular position.
Then there's Syria. Once again Ryan produced foreign-policy bluster. Biden said there's no way that the Obama administration was going to get sucked into another war in the Middle East. Ryan huffed and puffed that the administration isn't doing enough. He complained that we've oursourced our foreign policy to the United Nations. And that Obama is letting Russia determine the course of events in Syria. But he couldn't say what he and Romney would do differently.
When it came to domestic policy, a similar lack of clarity prevailed. Where would the trillions come from that Romney is proposing to lavish on the military? Ryan couldn't say. The home-mortgage deduction? Ryan wouldn't say if it would be preserved (even though it shouldn't). And so on.
No, Ryan's performance was hardly a disaster. He didn't commit any of the dreaded gaffes that press is longing for, and he remained polite and personable, even as Biden adopted the demeanor of one of the participants in a Washington Sunday morning talk show. Mostly what Biden provided was balm for the jangled nerves of Democrats who suffered a mental meltdown over the president's debate against Romney. Since then the Obama campaign has been in a kind of intensive ward with various doctors prescribing nostrums to reanimate the patient who seems to be showing fitful signs of recovery.
Whether this debate will affect the polls or even votes is dubious. The next Obama-Romney slugfest—and it is likely to be much harder hitting—will be more important to deciding the outcome. But it will take a tough moderator to make it as interesting as the one last night. The person who really proved herself last night was Raddatz. Maybe the debate sponsors should can the other upcoming moderators and sign up Raddatz to do the rest.
Image of Paul Ryan: Tony Alter/Gobonobo
Image of Joe Biden: World Economic Forum
So where did Mitt Romney come down in his big speech, "The Mantle of Leadership," at the Virginia Military Academy, on the side of the neocons or realists? He didn't. Instead of choosing between neocons and realists, he chose not to choose. His speech was a blend of great-power chest-thumping that artificially inflated the differences between him and Obama, on the one hand, and cautious prescriptions that did little to suggest the course he would pursue as president, on the other.
Rhetorically, the speech was pure neocon. Romney talked about returning to the great traditions of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. He talked about spreading freedom abroad. And he painted a Manichean portrait of the Middle East, suggesting that Obama has failed to appreciate the urge for freedom and liberty in the region, while foolishly distancing Washington from Jerusalem. Romney sought, above all, to suggest that Obama is a new President Carter, that once again America is under siege abroad. According to Romney,
The attacks against us in Libya were not an isolated incident. They were accompanied by anti-American riots in nearly two dozen other countries, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Africa and Asia. Our embassies have been attacked. Our flag has been burned. Many of our citizens have been threatened and driven from their overseas homes by vicious mobs, shouting “Death to America.”
It is telling that Romney uses the passive voice, in an effort to make the protests sound as threatening and ubiquitous as possible. But as the New York Times notes, there is no monolithic Arab world. What Romney does not acknowledge here is that the riots did not come out of the blue but were prompted by a viciously destructive anti-Islam movie that was made in America—or, at a minimum, that the film provided a handy pretext for anti-American uprisings.
Romney also is intent on depicting a battle between freedom and repression in the Middle East that is directly analogous to the Cold War. He stated,
In short, it is a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair. We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today’s crises from becoming tomorrow’s conflicts.
But this is nostalgia masquerading as foreign policy. The upheaval in the Middle East would not be familiar to Marshall. Europe consisted of countries that had long feudal traditions, then experienced the Enlightenment, before becoming democracies themselves, at least in the case of Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy. To liken them to Arab countries in the Middle East, which mostly consists of kleptocracies, is unpersuasive. In his quest for clarity, Romney is unwilling to acknowledge complexity.
But what Romney would actually do in the Oval Office is uncertain. Substantively, Romney, apart from calling for more shipbuilding programs, didn't really propose much that would represent a sharp break with current policies. He was rather vague in his speech about what kind of assistance he would render to the Syrian rebels. Whether Romney would actually confront China sharply is also questionable. When it came to Iran, Romney said, "I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have." This would seem to describe the Obama administration's stance perfectly. Romney makes it sound as though he has fundamental differences with Obama, but it is difficult to discern a practical one when it comes to Iran and other foreign-affairs issues.
His most likely move as president is unclear. A case could be made that the Republican nominee Romney is being supremely realistic in backing both realism and neoconservatism in his approach to foreign policy. As president, however, the real Romney would have to emerge.
Image: Talk Radio News Service
All of Barack Obama's worst traits manifested themselves during last night's debate. He was pedantic, professorial and detached. He conveyed the sense that he's too bored by Mitt Romney even to deign to battle him. Romney was auditioning for the job, Obama merely went through the motions. For conservatives who have been bashing Romney for not being right-wing enough, the message seems clear: let Romney be Romney. Which is to say allow him to pound away at Obama, while blurring his own conservative stands.
It was astounding to see how listless Obama appeared even as Romney hammered away with facts and figures, however dubious, that gave the impression that he was in full command. Obama could barely rouse himself to defend Obamacare, failing to counter Romney's claim that he had devoted the first years in office to health care rather than jobs. Once again Obama reverted to form: he only starts battling when his back is up against the wall.
So Romney's performance may have a perverse effect. It may jolt Obama out of his somnolence and prompt him to take Romney more seriously. But the bottom line for Romney is pellucidly clear: the best defense is a good offense. He needs to pound away relentlessly at Obama's record, while blurring his own, which is what he did last night. The fact is that Romney waffled on many of his core stances such as lowering taxes, which was the prudent tack to take. He should adopt it next in foreign affairs, jettisoning the neocon bluster about attacking Iran. He's got plenty of fodder to attack the president about when it comes to the Middle East and elsewhere.
Romney will have another advantage. For all the bellyaching among conservatives about the mainstream media being on the side of Obama, it ain't true. The media wants a real race to maintain interest in news coverage. Romney provided it. A flurry of stories will appear this week reassessing Romney, explaining why he's more likable than he's seemed and why he may have the grit and determination and gumption to turn around America. If Romney does win the presidency, he will be in a powerful position since he will have won it despite the grumbling of much of the Republican party. He will be in a position to say that he won it on his own terms.
To think that it's clear sailing for Romney, however, would be delusional. As James Rainey reminds us in the Los Angeles Times, John Kerry blew George W. Bush out of the water in the first 2004 debate:
Sitting amid a group of 100 swing voters who assembled to watch the debate at a college auditorium in Pennsylvania, I heard some laugh. Others shook their heads in dismay, as the president smirked or stammered and groped for words—particularly as he tried to defend the troublesome war in Iraq.
The crowd had been given portable dial-rating devices to instantly register their feelings about the two presidential contenders. On almost every question, the crowd dialed the more articulate and decisive Kerry as “very good” or close to it. They rated Bush around average, sometimes lower.
So don't be fooled. The presidential race isn't over. It may just have gotten started. But for Romney, who has been lagging in the polls and remains a distinct underdog, that's the good news.
Image: Gage Skidmore
One person who is posthumously benefitting from the upcoming debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney is Richard Nixon. Footage of Nixon debating John F. Kennedy in 1960 is popping up everywhere as commentators look back at the debates that have taken place over the decades.
The debates have their own lore. For those who watched the 1960 debates on television, Kennedy seemed to be the clear winner. For those who listened to that era's version of "wireless," Nixon gave Kennedy a licking. Nixon of course had been holed up in a hospital for several weeks, confined to a bed because of a knee injury he suffered that turned into phlebitis. Look at the pictures of him and he appears gaunt, haggard. He had clearly lost weight and muscle, while Kennedy, puffed up on cortisone shots, portrayed himself as youthful, vigorous, ready to get American up and running again to challenge the Soviets after the somnolent Eisenhower years. In 1960, Nixon muffed it at the debates. It wasn't simply his appearance. He was cowed by Kennedy. He largely agreed with much of his program, soft-pedaling the differences between the two men. The debates ended up elevating Kennedy. In response, Nixon never engaged in a presidential debate again, neither in 1968 nor in 1972.
Can Romney administer a similar knockout punch to Obama tonight? Like Nixon, Romney is basically a moderate. But unlike Nixon, he doesn't have the same resentment of the Eastern establishment, the neuralgic sense of its resentments and fears. Romney enjoyed a cossetted childhood. He went to Harvard. He was Governor of Massachusetts. As the son of a grocer, Nixon, by contrast, couldn't afford to go to Harvard. Nixon would probably marvel at Romney's failure to connect with the constituencies that propelled him to the presidency in 1968.
The belief, or hope, among some conservatives is that Romney will take on Obama directly and resuscitate his campaign. One theory is that Romney always does well in debates. But how hard was it really to demolish the likes of former pizza magnate Herman Cain? Or a puffed up Newt Gingrich? The one time he faced a serious opponent was when he debated Ted Kennedy, and he wiped the floor with Romney.
If Romney does not do well tonight, then his campaign will be over in all but name. Already the apprehension among Republicans is that he will drag down the GOP in congressional races, while a surging Obama leads the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate and add seats in the House. But the 2012 race may still have a few surprises left. As Maureen Dowd notes in the New York Times today, the Libya debacle suggests that the White House went into overdrive to try and contain the political damage--thereby exacerbating it. Was there, as Dowd asks, "complicity in duplicity"--did the Obama administration replicate the kind of politicization of foreign affairs that marked the George W. Bush administration?
But the debate tonight will revolve around domestic affairs. It is Romney's last shot. If he can emancipate himself from GOP dogma, he'll have a fighting chance. He won't simply be battling Obama but also his own party, which views him with deep mistrust. But if he fails, he may take it down along with him and set the stage for Obama to win big.
Conservative anger with Mitt Romney has steadily accompanied his campaign from the outset, like the monotonous drum beat in Ravel's Bolero. There was the carping over his bona fides because of his espousal of health-care reform as governor of Massachusetts. In recent weeks, conservatives such as George F. Will and Bill Kristol have been decrying the ineptitude of his campaign. Now, in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer joins the wilding of Romney.
As is his wont, Krauthammer does not engage in understatement. He suggests that Romney could almost singlehandedly turn around his campaign by focusing on—you guessed it—foreign affairs. Krauthammer believes that Obama "casually dismissed the murder of a U.S. ambassador"—in fact, he began his speech at the United Nations with a testament to Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens—and fails to take seriously "the epidemic of virulent demonstrations from Tunisia to Sri Lanka (!) to Indonesia." Should he have told their governments to crush them? Krauthammer further writes that Obama offered a "groveling address to the U.N. General Assembly"—by insisting on the centrality of free speech? No, in Krauthammer's world, the speech consituted a "plaintive plea by the world's alleged"—who's doing the alleging?—"superpower to be treated nicely by a roomful of the most corrupt, repressive, tin-pot regimes on earth." OK, these fulgurations are par for the course when it comes to Krauthammer. No one would read his column looking for a nuanced dissection of where the Obama administration has actually gone wrong and right. Instead, he himself offers tin-eared neocon dogma about the fecklessness of Obama & Co.
More interesting is his supposition that Romney could put a blast of wind into his sails by more vigorously denouncing Obama's lassitude. You might think that Romney had already stuck sufficient feet in his mouth with his precipitous and absurd statement about Obama kow-towing to Islamic terrorists right after the murder of Stevens, but then you wouldn't be living on Mr. Krauthammer's planet. Krauthammer wants Romney to "go large. About a foreign policy in ruins."
The truth is that the ruination of the Romney campaign has in part been the handiwork of neoconservatives such as Krauthammer. Yes, Romney is a middling politician. Yes, his campaign has struggled to find its footing. But part of the reason, as a number of commentators such as Fareed Zakaria have noted, is that the GOP itself is becoming an antediluvian party, stuck with a host of orthodoxies that no longer comport with new realities. Nowhere is this clearer than in foreign policy, where the old mantra that America need simply flex its muscles and the rest of the world will fall into line has become gospel for the GOP.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Romney may be that the ideological straitjacket he keeps trying to don doesn't fit him. The union between Romney and conservatives will never be conusmmated. Romney's progressive foes keep pointing to what they see as his penchant for prevarication. But what if the opposite is the problem—that Romney is a bad liar, trying to sell policies that he knows are bogus. The only thing that would speak for Romney, in other words, is that he can't speak for himself. But perhaps the moment has arrived for Romney to emancipate himself, to, as Hillary Clinton once put it, find his voice. The upcoming presidential debates will offer him his last chance to turn around his battered campaign, or a looming defeat will turn into a landslide for Obama. And if Romney does win the election—and, as the New York Times' Charles Blow wisely notes, it can't be precluded—he will know that he did not accomplish it because of conservative support but despite it.
Image: Gage Skidmore