The Last Debate

Planning on catching snippets of the final presidential debate tonight during time-outs on Monday Night Football? The game is tight, there are only two weeks left on the clock, and tonight is the last time that the candidates will face off in an attempt to connect with undecided voters. Here’s what to look out for after kick-off in Boca Raton.

First of all, this is Mitt Romney’s final opportunity to differentiate himself from President Obama on matters of foreign policy and national security, the subject of tonight’s debate. This has been a struggle for the former Massachusetts governor. As many commentators have noted, Romney has cited few concrete differences between his foreign-policy vision and that of the president beyond calling for astronomically higher defense spending and saying he would not “apologize for America.“ Analyst Sanho Tree summarizes Romney’s approach: “Me too, but I'll be even more belligerent because Obama is a wimp.”

The trick for Romney will be to seem different from Obama while still tacking to the middle, as he has done in the previous two debates. This may prove challenging given that many of his foreign-policy advisors are the same neoconservative hawks who brought the country the two wars, civil-liberties infringements, and go-it-alone policies of the George W. Bush administration. Romney will try to portray himself as tougher than Obama by, for instance, saying that we need a new “American century,” which means drawing red lines in the sand on Iran with “a credible military option,” building a missile-defense system, arming the Syrian rebels (with hints of direct intervention), and discounting one-on-one talks with Iran.

In order to make it appear that the president is doing an inadequate job of protecting our sleeping children—and to make his belligerence seem reasoned—Romney will say that America has many scary enemies. This is a prime reason why his campaign has grabbed hold of Benghazi. Here are terrorists attacking Americans and, symbolically, America itself—an “act of war” in the eyes of some on the right. Romney will assail the president not just for being unclear about the nature of the attack in the days after it occurred, but because he did not proclaim it the work of Al Qaeda. Given the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and the weakening of the group he led on Obama’s watch, this attack is a means of undercutting Obama’s success.

With regard to Iran, Romney will similarly play up fears of nuclear-armed mullahs as an existential threat to Israel and to American power in the Middle East. This is a tactic to look tougher than Obama, knowing that the current tough sanctions and possible one-on-one talks won’t look as tough as threatening military action. Iran also provides Romney a means of undercutting one of Obama’s other big foreign policy successes: ending the war in Iraq. Without saying that he would have wanted the war to go on, Romney will lament the state the country is in today cite the tight alliance between Tehran and Baghdad. This, in turn, will segue into a suggestion that Obama can’t be trusted to draw down in Afghanistan in a way that will secure the country and our gains there.

Despite Romney’s efforts to discredit Obama’s successes—Romney will likely concede the Bin Laden killing right off the bat—Obama should be able to keep the spotlight on them. There’s an advantage to being the sitting president: He will be able to rattle off accomplishments, talk eloquently and at length about current ventures, and drop names. He can say that he ended one war—even if there were mistakes—he can be trusted to end another. The flip side of the incumbent edge is that the Obama will be hamstrung when trying to respond to some of Romney’s more bombastic rhetorical grenades: He has to be sensitive to current diplomatic negotiations and relationships.

Given that Romney’s experience on foreign affairs is thin and that the economy is the main theme of his campaign, expect Romney to steer the conversation in this direction. Romney will say, for instance, that China is breaking trade rules and killing American jobs, and that it is manipulating its currency and harming our economy. On the Middle East, he’ll talk about how the rising price of gas at home is emptying Americans’ wallets. He will accuse Obama of failing to sign any new free-trade agreements, thereby failing to open up foreign markets to American goods. He will (preposterously) accuse Obama of “hollowing out” or “devastating” the military by not fighting hard enough against sequestration cuts (a.k.a the “Fiscal Cliff”), which will lead to a loss of jobs—unless Romney wins and raises security spending to 4 percent of GDP, which would increase the Pentagon’s budget by some $2.3 trillion over ten years.

President Obama will likely counter with a mixed strategy hitting on the same topic—economy and security—while rerouting the conversation abroad. On China and currency manipulation, for instance, Obama is likely to claim credit for pushing hard (“pushed them hard” were his words in the second debate) and citing the success of this approach. He will also likely point out that China is buying more American exports, purchaes a lower percentage of American debt than before, and is now cowering under the Pentagon’s “pivot.” He will likely repeat the accusation that businessman Romney invested in “pioneers of outsourcing” to the country.

These three themes—Romney trying to establish difference, enemies, and domestic interests—will guide a lot of the back and forth tonight. Keep an eye out for them while you watch for a fumble. They will help you catch up when you flick the remote control back and forth between the debate and the game.

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