Boca Raton, Fla.
Mitt Romney made no major mistakes in his final head-to-head debate with Barack Obama here Monday night, and he presented himself as a plausible commander in chief to the millions of voters watching across the country. So Romney achieved his two main objectives coming into the debate and, at least in that narrow sense, he avoided losing the debate.
But Romney was so determined to avoid sounding like George W. Bush that he spent much of the night sounding like Barack Obama. The two men agreed on so many issues – from Syria to drones, from leaving Afghanistan in 2014 to avoiding wars like Iraq – that voters who tuned in seeking a contrast had only a few brief moments to understand the differences between them.
Those moments were the high points for Romney. His best answer of the evening came nearly one hour in, when he offered a world-tour of Obama failures in an answer that could be clipped and run in an ad if Romney’s team wanted to drive a contrast.
“I look at what’s happening around the world and I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult. I see jihadists continuing to spread. Whether they’re rising or just about the same level hard to — hard to precisely measure, but it’s clear they’re there. They’re very, very strong. I see Syria with 30,000 civilians dead, Assad still in power. I see our trade deficit with China larger than it’s — growing larger every year as a matter of fact. I look around the world and I don’t feel that — you see North Korea continuing to export their nuclear technology. Russia’s said they’re not going to follow Nunn-Lugar anymore; they’re (back?) away from their nuclear proliferation treaty that we had with them. I look around the world – I don’t see our influence growing around the world. I see our influence receding.”
It was the highlight of a night that had few of them. Romney set the tone with his first answer. The evening began with a question from Bob Schieffer about Libya – an opening for Romney if ever there was one. But rather than use the question to remind voters about the many conflicting stories that the Obama team has told about the events in Libya, or to merely describe in detail what happened on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Romney tip-toed through an answer that seemed designed to allow him to avoid being accused of “politicizing” the events – as he was on September 12 and again at the second presidential debate.
Romney seems to have two speeds – full on and full off. He’s either very aggressive or he’s not aggressive at all. After he was criticized heavily for his statement and then press conference on September 12, Romney seemed eager to drop the Libya issue altogether. He did this once before. In a press availability on the Romney plane in late September, Romney downplayed the many mistakes by the administration.
“I think with the investigation ongoing it would be premature to describe precisely what the administration did correctly or incorrectly. There are a wide array of reports about warnings and were they heeded – we’ll find out whether that was the case or that was not the case.” Romney pointed out that the attack was not likely a spontaneous response to a YouTube video. He added: “There was a great deal of confusion about that from the very beginning on the part of the administration and whether that was something that they were trying to paper over or whether it was just confusion given the uncertain intelligence reports—time will tell.”
Romney took the same, almost non-judgmental approach in the debate.
The most important question about Romney’s performance last night: Did voters see him as “presidential” and “above-the-fray” or as a man without many ideas of his own and weak?
The good news for Romney is that President Obama was exceedingly condescending and disrespectful. Obama offered a reasonably strong defense of a record that’s difficult to run on, but he did so in such a patronizing and insulting way that it may have turned off as many voters as it won him. Obama came ready to debate George W. Bush and he seemed incapable to calibrating his response when that person didn’t show up across from him.
So he mocked Romney, repeatedly, lecturing his opponent about how being president “is not a game of battleship” and suggesting Romney simply doesn’t’ understand the modern military. He said: “Governor Romney, I’m glad you recognize al Qaeda is a threat.” And moments later: “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy.”
Polls have shown Obama with strong lead on the question of “likability” – something that has mattered a lot in the era of the televised campaign. With an electorate skeptical of his record, it is arguably the one advantage that has allowed him to stay competitive. It’s hard to believe anyone who watched last night, other than the hardest Democratic partisans, would have found the president likable.
If Romney seemed eager to avoid sharp contrasts, Obama was determined to provide them. And in that sense the president was the challenger and Romney conducted himself like the incumbent – or at least the candidate leading the race. Either way, the debate Monday told us much more about the next two weeks than it did about the next four years.