A Good Debate, But Will Voters Notice?

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shake hands following their third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida.

Obama did very well in the foreign-policy debate, but it remains to be seen if his success will change the trajectory of the race, which has been trending toward Romney. 

Several things about this debate were a surprise. The most surprising thing was the emergence of Mild Mitt. Romney sounded almost as if he were on downers. His campaign must have decided that he was coming across as too ferocious or two bellicose. But his performance tonight was underwhelming.

Obama, by contrast, took the debate to Romney right from the first exchange. He was almost too aggressive, calling the former Massachusetts governor on his inconsistencies and policy recommendations that would have backfired. “Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” the president said.

But Romney did not take the bait. The other odd thing about Romney’s performance was that while he criticized Obama at the level of generalization, he kept agreeing with Obama whenever the conversation got down to details.

Moderator Bob Shieffer pressed Romney on where he would differ with Obama’s actual policies. Would he have kept Mubarak in power in Egypt? Would have left Gaddafi in power in Libya? Would he go to war to keep Iran from getting military weapons?

No, no, and no. Over and over again, Romney seemed to be saying that he basically agreed with Obama’s policies, but that somehow he would carry them out more effectively—by “shouting louder,” as Obama put it. Time after time, he sounded like “me-too.”

Once again, surprisingly, Romney failed to score points on the killings in Libya. Obama, very deftly, reminded viewers of the administration’s achievement in getting rid of Gaddafi, who, as Obama said, “had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden.”

This shifted the focus from the intelligence gap and confusing administration response in Benghazi to the larger success of America’s Libya policy, getting Gaddafi out, helping to install a moderate and basically pro-American regime.

Obama was much sharper and more precise when it came to getting down to details. He clearly had a mastery of the issues, where Romney had mainly platitudes.

He scored a couple of lovely zingers. When Romney faulted Obama for allowing the navy to have its fewest ships since 1917, Obama pointed out that we have fewer horses and bayonets, too.  “We have things called aircraft carriers,” he noted.

Romney was simply not credible when he criticized the administration for not achieving more results in installing moderate Muslim regimes.  America has only so much power in the Middle East, and the Obama administration has used it rather well. This became clear when Romney simply could not specify what he might have done differently.

So Obama was tough and effective, while Romney was surprisingly passive. But Romney fought almost to a draw by pointing out again and again that the Middle East is in tumult, as if Obama had the power to change that unilaterally.

The question is whether foreign policy matters enough to change the trajectory of this election, whether voters are paying attention to these nuances that clearly played to Obama’s strength.

It reminds one of a famous Adlai Stevenson story, in which a gushing supporter told the cerebral governor, “You have the vote of every thinking person.” And Stevenson all too presciently replied, “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority.”

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