At the final presidential candidate debate, on Monday night, Mitt Romney pulled off one of the great political metamorphoses of our time. He turned himself into his opponent. For 90 minutes, Romney spoke about how much he agreed with Barack Obama‘s foreign policy. The main difference: Romney will be louder.
Foreign policy was never going to be the strong suit of a former one-term governor, but too often during the debate, Romney sounded a lot like he was speaking phonetically, without any understanding of the words coming out of his mouth. Really, Mali? How many votes did that win among undecided voters in Akron? The goal was to look and sound presidential. But on that score, Obama clearly had Romney beat, and not just because he is president and has to know about Mali. Obama was able to stress that he’s established a successful direction in foreign policy and will keep to it. (If he could make the same argument for the economy, he wouldn’t be in such a tight race.) And he made Romney an example of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of his anger.
More to the point, Obama took the game to Romney again, as he did in the second debate. Romney seemed to be laboring under a “do no harm” clause in his debate contract. His attack on events in Libya, that was so disastrous for him last time out? Missing. Withdrawal from Afghanistan? “The surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding at pace.” Drones? Mitt loves ’em.
How well this sudden moderation will play with the shariah-fearing right in the GOP remains to be seen. But when Romney did try to go on the offensive, he left himself wide open to attack. The most noteworthy example was Romney’s attempt to characterize the current U.S. Navy as roughly a couple of buckets and a rubber duck short of the World War I fleet. This prompting Obama, in a witheringly condescending response, to inform Romney that we aren’t using as many bayonets and horses either because of these wondrous new inventions like submarines.
Romney didn’t seem to be able to recover from these verbal assaults, and as the debate wore on, he began to acquire a Nixonian sheen from sweat. By the end, he looked like Obama did at the end of the first debate–like a man who would rather be undergoing an experimental orthodontic procedure than sitting on the stage where he was.
Will the debate matter much? Probably not. It’s not 2004, where foreign policy was front and center. That’s why Romney kept trying to talk about the economy. But really, was it too much to expect a question about DADT during a foreign policy debate? Republicans have characterized it as a national security issue, so it wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch. It wouldn’t have hurt Barack to mention it either in his litany of praise for the troops. No such luck, though.
In a debate, it seems some things aren’t worth talking about. Clearly, we’re one of them.