Presidential candidates don’t win elections by winning presidential debates on points. It isn’t clear that they win presidential elections by winning debates based on any criteria. But the debates give voters an opportunity to learn about the candidates, to assess them against their hopes and convictions, and to help them render their judgments at election time. Thus do debates become a significant repository of information to be used in assessing the candidates.
What did the voters learn last night about Mitt Romney as they complete the process of determining whether he or President Obama should occupy the White House over the next four years? That at heart he is not a hard-core neoconservative. Either that or he is a complete phony. The Republican candidate who presented himself to the American people on foreign-policy issues came across as measured, moderate, informed and capable of handling complex issues with nuance and balance.
Romney made clear he harbored no desire to send American troops into civil-war-torn Syria, though he wants America to exercise measured leadership to provide arms to the opposition and ensure that Syria’s new leaders, whenever they emerge, will be friends of the United States. He offered a nod of approval for Obama’s sanctions against Iran but said he would have done it earlier and, if elected, would tighten them. He echoed Obama in saying military action against Iran should be absolutely a last-resort action. On Afghanistan, he said Obama’s surge of troops there had been successful, and he endorsed the current policy of getting U.S. combat troops out by the end of 2014. On China, he offered encouraging words of cooperation in a “stable world” but also threw in a tough rendition of what he considered that country’s economic transgressions.
Overall, Romney set out to ensure that he didn’t come across as more bellicose than his opponent, and he succeeded. Two snippets of commentary following the debate were telling. First, neoconservative writer Charles Krauthammer, interviewed on Fox News, praised Romney for avoiding the appearance of being a “Bush-like war-monger.” He added he would have gone after Obama “with a baseball bat” for his reluctance to take a more aggressive approach to the tragic and bloody chaos in Syria. He added approvingly, “But that’s why he’s won elections, and I never have.” Thus did a leading neoconservative acknowledge that Romney was smart to eschew neoconservative rhetoric.
Secondly, also on Fox, Chris Wallace said a source in the Romney campaign told him that Romney’s debate strategy was developed by the candidate himself, not by those around him. In other words, his handlers let Romney be Romney, and the result helped position him well for the campaign’s last two weeks.
But the debate revealed also that Romney has a problem in competing with Obama on international relations—namely, that Obama’s foreign policy has not generated many hackles within the electorate. There simply aren’t a lot of obvious attack avenues certain to resonate with the American people.
Getting out of Iraq? The electorate generally is happy with that outcome and the way Obama handled it.
The effort to “transition out of Afghanistan,” as the president artfully puts it? Likewise, the voters agree with that strategy.
The “pivot” to Asia in an effort to counter China’s growing power and influence? Polls show this is one particular area where the American people favor a certain toughness.
The decision to avoid getting drawn into Syria in any significant way? The American people clearly don’t want their country pulled into another Mideast war, particularly if the rationale is merely to foster democracy. Indeed, the president scored perhaps his best shot by saying more than once, “After a decade of war, there is some nation building we have here at home.”
The attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans? Obama is vulnerable on this, but Romney sidestepped any effort to score points on it, letting events speak for themselves.
All this reflects the reality that Obama’s foreign policy has not left him seriously vulnerable to political attack, with voters as the arbiters. To be sure, in purely diplomatic terms the president’s record is marred by missteps and lapses, as Dimitri Simes made clear in these spaces yesterday. He cited deteriorating U.S. relations with Russia and China, an approach to Libya that increased the likelihood of war with Iran, declining U.S. credibility in the Middle East and other “unfulfilled promises.” All valid.
But the question is whether such lapses and missteps are driving voters away from Obama in significant numbers. Romney seems to have concluded he was better off talking in broad terms about the president’s unfulfilled promise rather than going after specifics. Thus, he repeatedly said the president had failed to develop a “comprehensive strategy” for the Middle East. He talked in general terms about getting the Muslim world to reject extremism and issued a litany of the standard aims—getting more economic development into the region, fostering better education, promoting gender equality and the rule of law. He talked about America’s “responsibility and privilege to defend freedom.” Here he sounded a bit like Condoleezza Rice.
But he scored the president forcefully on his handling of the economy, which he said was undermining America’s world influence. And he opened up distance between himself and Obama on military strength.
On tone, the president came across as taut, intensely alert and ready to strike whenever an opening presented itself. He jabbed at his opponent in ways that seemed at times denigrating to the man rather than merely dismissive of his policies. He said Romney’s approach to foreign policy was “all over the map.” He was sending “mixed messages.” Obama said his opponent’s policies were not only “wrong” but “reckless.” He rather patronizingly suggested Romney “maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at” the intricacies of America’s military policies, then followed up by explaining what an aircraft carrier is and how submarines work. When Romney nudged Obama for not visiting Israel during his first Mideast trip as president, Obama countered by saying pointedly that at least he didn’t take along his fundraisers (as Romney did recently).
By contrast, Romney remained throughout the debate on a high plane, eschewing personal attacks and partisan digs. But he didn’t back away from his earlier criticisms about Obama’s “apology tour” abroad shortly after taking office. As Obama bristled, Romney cited specifically Obama’s suggestion that America had been “dismissive and divisive” with other nations and had “dictated” to them. “We did not dictate to other nations,” declared Romney. “We freed other nations from dictators.”
In the end, both men seemed to accomplish most of what they needed to accomplish. Obama’s central aim was to defend his record and stand tall as a foreign-policy president. He succeeded. His secondary aim was to reveal his opponent as callow and perhaps dangerous on foreign policy. In this he didn’t succeed. Romney needed to appear stolid, cool, measured and capable. He succeeded. His secondary aim was to make the case that Obama was moving the country toward major world crises. The case wasn’t made.
To whatever extent foreign-policy issues will drive the final decision making among voters, this debate was not decisive. But it probably gave those final decision makers some valuable information to crank into their decision-making process.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Image: Gage Skidmore