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.