For decades the true special relationship has been between Germany and Israel. After World War II relations were slowly established between the two countries. Israel looked warily at the author of World War II and the Holocaust, while West Germany sought to establish ties with the Jewish state to demonstrate that it was becoming a solid and dependable democracy. German chancellor Konrad Adenauer negotiated a restitution agreement with Israel and visited it in retirement in 1966. Since then, successive German chancellors have worked to improve ties with Israel. Indeed, the current German chancellor Angela Merkel has been very much in the Adenauer vein. She has steadfastly defended Israel publicly and sold it submarines, which Israel is outfitting with nuclear missiles. She also voted against accepting the Palestinians into UNESCO last year.
But as the weekly Der Spiegel reports, she is no longer adhering to that tough line because of her exasperation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is antagonizing Merkel and injuring the close ties between Bonn and Jerusalem. The source of the tension is the issue of the United Nations non-member observer status for the Palestinians, which they won overwhelmingly in November. Initially, Netanyahu counted on Merkel to stop the major European countries from assenting to the resolution. But then it became clear that this would not succeed. So the Israelis asked Merkel to switch tactics: they wanted Germany to push for a general abstention. But as Der Spiegel notes,
the Israeli change of heart arrived too late. In the meantime, the governments of a majority of EU states, including France's, had decided to back the Palestinians. There was not going to be any across-the-board abstention from EU countries.
What happened next enraged Merkel. The Israelis insisted that Berlin now vote no on the resolution. Merkel refused. She was miffed that Israel saw Germany's vote as a bargaining chip that it could dispose of at it pleased. At the UN, Germany did not vote no. Instead, it abstained.
Germany is increasingly irked by the adamant refusal of Netanyahu to engage in serious engotiations with the Palestinians. Merkel is influenced by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's insistence that Israel needs to treat with the Palestinian leadership. In addition, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt has openly criticized the sale of submarines to Israel; "I would not have done it." With Netanyahu's decision to proceed, or threaten to proceed, with the E-1 construction of several thousand new settlements east of Jerusalem—a move that would effectively abolish a two-state solution—he is raising diplomatic hackles across Europe.
Nevertheless, Germany is remaining cautious. According to Haaretz,
"We've agreed to disagree over construction in the E-1 area," she said. "But that does not prevent us from agreeing over issues such as security."
Merkel said it was important for both Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from unilateral moves. But on E-1, "Israel has a different opinion, and it is a sovereign state," she said. "We can only express our opinion."
But Merkel's opinions are becoming clear. Netanyahu is nowhere near breaking the relationship between Germany and Israel. But it is fraying. Future chancellors of a Germany that is taking a more independent course in foreign affairs may not be as pro-Israel as Merkel. So Netanyahu is following a perilous path. He should be shoring up Israel's relations abroad. Instead, his true legacy may be that he has further damaged Israel's relations with key allies and isolated it.
Image: Flickr/Maarten van Maanen.
With his decision to retire from the Senate and join the Heritage Foundation as its new president, Jim DeMint has created a minor furor in Washington. Is he simply cashing in for the $1 million salary? Is he going to launch a new crusade from the precincts of Heritage to protect America's free market heritage? Does he believe that more influence can be waged upon the Republican party from without than within? Is his decision another sign that the conservative movement in turmoil?
Why not all of the above? The GOP didn't just lose the election but also its bearings. It has no coherent program for opposing President Obama—no concept for taxes or debt or immigration or even foreign affairs, other than to say that Obama is a bungler. At a moment when the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.7 percent and Obama's hand has again been strengthened in negotiating with the GOP, it's not a message that will appeal to any but the already-converted. The GOP is a party that's in search of a renewed political program, or at least it should be. The process of an agonizing reappraisal is in its infancy.
DeMint's decision is part of that process. He has drawn the logical conclusion from his tenure in the Senate, which is to say that he has never really been much interested in governing but, rather, in going on the barricades. The Senate may be moving in the opposite direction under the pressure to reach a deal on taxes and the budget deficit. DeMint's resignation points to the difficulty that the Tea Party has faced, and continues to face, in championing small government. It has no real substantive program to effect change and many of the candidates that DeMint backed, such as the loopy Sharron Angle, turned out to be unelectable.
As president of Heritage, DeMint will surely be in a stronger position to influence the direction of debate about the direction the conservative movement should follow. He's saying that the conservative movement needs to detach itself from the Republican party. Fine. But what new ideas will the movement espouse? Last evening I attended a discussion hosted by the conservative Claremont Institute at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington on the aftermath of the election. Claremont regularly holds such meetings to try to fructify thought on the right. This time the mood was pensive. Brian Kennedy, the head of the Institute, asked whether the American public was "deeply confused—or not so confused" about what was at stake. Has the public, he asked, begun to repudiate conservative principles? William Voegeli referred to "our time of affliction," suggesting that America was beginning to catch up to Europe in its spending habits. And Charles Kessler joked that "you begin to get the idea that somebody out there doesn't like us." Still, perhaps Obama's victory wasn't all that sweeping, it was suggested, since Republicans had retained the House of Representatives and won the lion's share of governorships.
My guess is that the Claremont folks would be receptive to what DeMint represents and that they, too, believe that moving the GOP to the right will offer a viable program, particularly in the economic sphere, to attract fresh voters. He will have to revive Heritage as well. Heritage's boom years were during the Reagan era when conservatism genuinely seemed like an insurgent movement. After decades of liberal dominance, a new breed of western conservative moved into Washington. With its Mandate for Leadership tomes and close connections with Reagan officials, Heritage was the it girl of think-tanks. Some of that luster has worn off as it retreated to pumping out position papers for Congress.
Still, it would be unfair to say that Heritage was ever a fount of intellectual ideas and that DeMint represents a lowering of the tone. He doesn't. He may take Heritage back to its roots—back to what Reagan once called that "feisty new kid on the conservative block." The latest chapter in the saga of the conservative movement, which has played such a profound role in reshaping America over the past few decades, is yet to be written. Whether it will be a script that attracts a new and attentive audience is an open question.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
William F. Buckley became despondent about the conservative movement in general, and the actions of the George W. Bush White House in particular, towards the end of his life. It was the influence of the neocons that he seemed to rue most as the Iraq war ground on and conservatism came into ill-repute. It's hard to avoid the feeling that Buckley, who played a pivotal role in creating modern conservatism, felt that it had morphed into something of a Frankenstein. His own son, Christopher Buckley, was effectively purged from National Review over his publicly voiced disaffection with the policies of the Bush administration and the direction of conservatism in the form of an endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008.
So would the conservative movement benefit from a return of a Buckley-like figure to rescue it from its current torpor? That's the argument of David Welch, a former researcher for the Republican National Committee, in the New York Times. As Welch depicts it, the lunatics have taken over the asylum in the GOP. Just as Buckley ran the John Birch Society out of the GOP in the early 1960s, so establishment conservatives must exorcise the spell of Tea Party members over the GOP. Here is Welch:
The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.
Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”
Does Welch's argument hold up?
One problem is that he is demonizing the Tea Party. It is true that the Tea Party contains members who are bonkers. But it's something of a stretch to liken it to the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a dupe of the Kremlin and that there was an establishment cabal, headed by Jewish bankers and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, often one and the same, who were secretly running America, and not for the better. The Tea Party, by contrast, harkens back to older libertarian strains in American history—it's opposed to taxes and big government. If anything, it is a movement that has distinct Jeffersonian strains. The Birchers were fascists; to apply that label to the Tea Party adherents is unpersuasive.
Welch goes on to argue,
Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.
Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.
Yes, Christie and Bush could help pull the GOP back to more sensible positions. But invoking the example of Buckley is not the way to do it. The truth is that Buckley launched his own crusade against the Republican establishment, against the middle-of-the-road moderation espoused by Eisenhower. Buckley himself was a pal of Senator Joseph McCarthy's and on the right of the party. He set out to destroy the traditional Republican party with his own insurgency. He succeeded. That is the story of modern conservatism. But like many revolutionaries, Buckley saw his own movement lurch out of control. The Leninists took over in the form of the neocons—endless wars in the Middle East, blind support for Israel, bloated military budgets, extravagant budget deficits, the very policies driving America toward fiscal ruin. Now the right resembles, as Sam Tanenhaus has put it in The Death of Conservatism, "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology."
What Welch is really calling for is an anti-Buckley to reanimate the GOP. In my view the most intriguing thinking on the right, as David Brooks has noted, is taking place among the renegades at the plucky American Conservative, where libertarian propositions are freely aired, where American foreign policy is invigilated, and where, above all, few shibboleths are left unchallenged. It has the feel of what Buckley's magazine once represented, an insurgent movement with little to lose and much to gain. But whether that can translate into actual political influence is an open question. Welch urges a different tack: the emergence of an establishment figure from the ranks of the moderate establishment that Buckley originally set out to destroy. But as Geoffrey Kabaservice has chronicled in his new book Rule and Ruin, it would be a herculean task to reconstitute it. Will anyone rise to the challenge? And will anyone be listening?
The defenders of Susan Rice offer numerous explanations for why President Obama should ignore her detractors, and they seem to growing by the day, to select her to become Secretary of State. They say that she is a victim of racism. Or they say that she is being tarred as overly aggressive, a label that no one would pin on a man. Or they say she is abundantly qualified for the post. Or they say all of the above.
None of it is convincing. The truth is that Susan Rice would be a lousy candidate for Secretary of State even if she had never uttered a syllable about Benghazi. As Maureen Dowd observes in the New York Times, the very fact that she walked out of her big 90-minute meeting with Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte leaving them more, not less, dubious about her credentials is a telling indice of her lack of diplomatic skills. What on earth did she say? That they were "confused," as she once sniped at McCain, about her record? If she she keeps this up, pretty soon there may be a spontaneous demonstration against Rice in the Senate.
She has punched all the right tickets in the foreign policy establishment--Stanford, a Rhodes scholarship, various national security postings. For a president like Obama who seems to have a pathological need to surround himself with establishment advisers she fits just right in. But the most striking thing about Rice's resume--which, as Dana Milbank has noted, is not so hot after all--is what it does not contain--a serious position that has nothing to do with foreign policy. She has not been a Senator, a lawyer, a businessman. Instead, she has succeeded at succeeding. She has never, you could say, left her little ecosystem.
Now she is supposed to be the president's star pupil. She also has the White House cabal of Michelle Obama and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, one of the worst influences on Obama, behind her. Obama dared her critics to come after him instead. It was a childish boast. She has never demonstrated prowess as a diplomat. In reality, she is simply, as she has been all her life, the teacher's pet.
It is this background, I suspect, that made her so prepared to fall on her sword for the Obama administration. She wants to please her superiors, which is why she fudged when it came to deeming the events in Rwanda "genocide" during her service on the national security council during the Clinton administration. In 1994 she apparently stated, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November congressional election?" This isn't the statement of a diplomat, but a political hack.
The bottom line is this: Rice doesn't question authority; she seeks to cater to it. So she asked no questions about the bogus intelligence about the events in Libya that she was relying upon. Rather, she simply regurgitated her talking points about a spontaneous protest in Benghazi with vigor and conviction. Which is why Senator Bob Corker has it right when he observes that her talents might be best-suited to making her an "outstanding" head of the Democratic National Committee, but are not necessarily conducive to a successful tenure as Secretary of State.
With numerous foreign affairs problems confronting America--from the roiling Middle East to a resurgent China--Rice simply does not have the experience to grapple with them successfully. Democrats, the Los Angeles Times reports, are beginning to get queasy about Rice: "Without defections, Democrats would need to pick up only five Republican votes to stop a filibuster of the nomination. But some Senate Democrats are privately expressing reluctance to cast a vote that might not be popular in their home states." Obama would not simply be making a mistake if he picks Rice. He would be committing a terrible blunder. Instead of dwelling on her, Obama should move on and avoid a divisive confirmation battle. How about approaching Jon Huntsman?
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