For anyone with a pulse (and, I suppose, a few brain cells), the scores from Monday night were clearly: San Francisco 9, St. Louis 0 and Barack Obama 1, Mitt Romney 0. On a point-for-point basis—and not that Obama’s positions and debate points were progressive or left-leaning, by any means—Obama won by a knockout. He was calm, consistent, well-informed and articulate. Yet the fact remains that Obama probably didn’t win over any undecided voters last night, if there are any of that rare breed left. Here’s why.
As in the first debate, when Romney the Radical disappeared and was replaced by Mitt the Moderate, last night it was the Moderate once again who sat down next to Obama. Many progressives and supporters of Obama thought that the framework of the foreign policy debate would be simple. They believed that Romney could be slammed as a radical, neoconservative, war-mongering militarist who, in addition, was a know-nothing. Too many analysts, including at The Nation, believed that it would be a simple matter to equate Romney with those among his advisers who were neocons left over the Bush administration.
But facts are facts, and the fact is that Romney is not a neocon. His rightward drift in the primary season, during which he placated the most militant among the Republican faithful, was Etch-A-Sketched away. That was entirely predictable. In fact, of course, Romney advisers said that he’d do exactly that during the general election. It’s foolish to pick and choose among the various positions that Romney has taken to conclude which is the “real Romney,” Romney the Radical or Mitt the Moderate. That’s because Romney is blank slate, a kind of cyborg programmed to win, in which ideology doesn’t play a part. As one adviser said, Romney is a businessman who sees everything in balance-sheet format, and “balance sheets don’t hate.” That’s true when it comes to domestic policy: abortion, Obamacare, same-sex marriage, Medicare privatization. And it’s true for foreign policy, too.
So what happened last night?
Romney had two goals. First, to present the world as slip-sliding toward chaos, in which a resurgent Al Qaeda could reestablish itself, and then blame Obama for weak leadership in allowing that to happen. And second, to snuggle up to Obama’s own positions of virtually every issue of contention.
In connection with the first goal, Romney cited events in the Middle East primarily: Syria, in a civil war in which 30,000 have died; Iran, edging closer to a nuclear weapon, after what he described as Obama’s failure to support the Green Movement uprising of 2009; the unnerving rise of Islamists in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; an unstable Pakistan; and so on. All of that, he claimed, is the result of a weak Obama who has engaged in what Romney described as a four-year “apology tour” that emboldened American adversaries and Islamists. A lot of what Romney tried to do was to appeal to those Americans who still believe that Obama is a Muslim and who are fearful that sharia law is coming to the United States, by subtly (and not so subtly) evoking images of bearded radicals burning American flags, sacking embassies, etc.
But Romney’s second goal, in which he dovetailed nicely with Obama’s own policies, flatly contradicted his first. Even though the world is going to hell in a handbasket, as Romney might say, he really wouldn’t do anything much different. Would he arm the Syrian rebels? Well, no. Would he go to war with Iran? Well, no. Would he stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Well, no. Would he cut off aid to Pakistan? No, again.
Though Obama appeared sufficiently presidential, he didn’t really counter either of Romney’s goals well. To do so would have required that Obama conduct an instant fact-check on every one of Romney’s positions, and the president seemed unprepared to do that. He repeated, over and over, that Romney was “wrong” about this or that, but he didn’t seem prepared to explain, in detail, how Romney had diverged from Radical to Moderate. Instead, Obama seemed content to tell voters that he and Romney agreed on each of these things, but that hardly helps Obama. Why vote for Obama over Romney if both, after November, would do almost identical things?
One path, clearly favored by readers of The Nation, would have been for Obama to outline a truly progressive foreign policy. If he had strongly advocated cutting the military budget, in contrast to Romney’s trillion-dollar defense buildup, that might have been a contrast, but Obama instead strongly defended a bloated Pentagon budget aimed at keeping American No. 1. If he forcefully advocated a deal with Iran, in which Iran limits its nuclear enrichment program and accepts more vigorous international inspection, in exchange for an American agreement to lift sanctions and tolerate a controlled enrichment program, he might have contrasted himself with Romney, but instead Obama said over and over again that he won’t permit Iran to get the bomb. And so on.
Obama accused Romney of reverting to the 1980s version of foreign policy, in which the United States confronted the USSR with a huge military buildup. And, true, that’s Romney’s outdated, cold war–era view. But if Romney is a 1980s Republican, Obama himself seemingly reverts to the Democratic foreign policy of the 1980s: strong defense, staunch alliance with Israel, a reliance on NATO and other military alliances, and everything that goes with it. So Obama utterly failed to present himself as planning anything new when it comes to foreign policy. That’s too bad.
For more post-debate rundowns, check out John Nichols's "Foreign Policy Really is Foreign to Mitt Romney ."