If you’re reading this, we’re guessing you are anxious to know who we thought won last night’s debate. That answer is simple: Bob Schieffer, who moderated the debate. We were convinced that, based on Bob’s near ebullient post debate analysis in the first two presidential debates that he would be the epitome of liberal media bias in moderating this debate. Bob was a pleasant surprise to us, and frankly if you were to look on his past performances in a similar role, he has been very capable of acting as an objective facilitator when the situation required it. Our hats are off to Bob as the best of this year’s moderators.
The spotlight at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, was of course on the two men seated across from Bob. The simple conference table setting likely contributed to a more cordial discussion, as did Bob’s management of the debate. Bob gave a lot of leeway to both sides during the evening, and the candidates took what they could. Overall, not unlike the prior performance in terms of spirit, depth of attacks, and depth of content.
President Obama (Justin Arnold)
The president performed very well on this night, managing to paint his foreign policy record in a relatively good light while also jabbing Mitt Romney with a frequency that frankly surprised me.
It was crystal clear from the beginning that President Obama felt behind in this race and needed to make up ground. He directly attacked Romney as often as possible with the following list of assertions: Romney’s foreign policy positions have been “all over the map”, that a Romney foreign policy would be akin to George Bush and Dick Cheney, and that Romney’s budget “just doesn’t add up” and “just doesn’t work”. Joining these more aggressive attacks were consistent subtle reminders that he, not Romney, has the experience edge when it comes to being the Commander In Chief—starting sentences with, “I know you haven’t had the opportunity to execute foreign policy” and “What I’ve learned as Commander In Chief…”
Though I thought Obama managed to speak his way out of what has been a total failure to stop Iran from going nuclear, he still lost the exchange on the topic. The Iran discussion pretty much went: Obama spoke first and sounded tough on Iran—Romney spoke second, sounded even tougher, and gave actual specifics of the further actions he would take to achieve the strategic objective.
While points on the margins were scored by each candidate on a variety of topics, both performed well and no real game changing momentum shifts transpired. The bigger story was what Romney chose not to say (nothing on Benghazi) and how Obama chose to say what he said (very aggressive and condescending).
3 things That Irked Me
- In the first segment, speaking of Romney’s foreign policy positions, the president said to Romney, “Your strategy has been all over the map…, and is not designed to keep America safe.”
This struck me as an insulting, reckless, and slanderous claim. What is being implied here is that Romney has more interest in playing politics than protecting the lives of America’s citizens. While this is the caricature Liberals have constructed of Romney, hearing a sitting president say this went over the line in my view—and ironically it doesn’t even make much sense as Romney agrees with a good deal of Obama’s foreign policy decisions.
- When the topic drifted to the economy President Obama said the following, “We’ve got to make sure we reduce our deficit …we’ve got to do it in a responsible way by cutting out spending we don’t need, but also asking the wealthiest to pay a little more.”
It is amazing that he can use these lines with a straight face given his actual record—he has been the president for nearly four years! If there is wasteful spending why have you not cut it already? This is more empty talk and complete garbage.
- I find it personally maddening that the President keeps saying, including tonight, that since the Afghanistan war is winding down we now have all this money to “invest in America” and “put people back to work”. Look, it couldn’t be any more obvious that we simply do not have any money—no more dough. This country has accumulated over $4 trillion dollars in debt in just the last four years. Obama is fond of saying this is largely because we put two wars on a credit card, but the fact is that all this “new” money we somehow will have as a result of not spending it in Afghanistan is this same “credit card” money. It is just ridiculous, and I wish Romney would have called him on it.
Mitt Romney (Art)
Last night’s debate could have been an opportunity for Romney to take the election away from the President. Instead, we witnessed another draw. Governor Romney did have a good handle on the issues, but throughout the discussion was consistently agreeable with the President’s decisions on various events.
Anyone with any sense and experience of age should know that Foreign Policy is an area that one develops over time when doing a job that requires direct interaction with ambassadors and foreign dignitaries on a weekly basis. People who become good at this include ambassadors, state department employees, CIA operatives, Secretaries of State, Defense & Agriculture, and of course the President of the United States. It is to be expected that a challenger to a sitting president will need to work hard to reach a level of knowledge that his opponent will have developed over 4 years of constant work. Even four years ago candidate Obama had a foreign policy agenda whose weaknesses were not apparent to him until he had been in office for a while.
While Romney did a good job of scoring points on several of Obama’s foreign policy failures, he did so at a friendly pace and with no visual animus. He made what is likely to be the smart decision of completely avoiding the Benghazi issue of “What did the President and his administration say when.” This had multiple benefits for the Governor, including: he avoided backing the President into a corner (which could have been disastrous considering the fact that any simple fact-checking after the second debate proved the President wrong about his own Rose Garden comments), the public watching this would generally have seen this as just rubbing the President’s nose in the issue, and frankly many would have found it boring.
But despite the smartness of that one decision, the general tone was incredibly cordial and filled with “I agree with…” statements on both sides of the debate. Romney did well to point out the failures (early pandering by the President to other countries, the strained relations with Poland over the canceling of the missile defense shield agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic ), but each of these items deserved more direct attention.
- Romney potentially had the upper hand on a number of issues. The only one he really dug deeply into was Obama’s “Apology Tour”. The problem with this was that the only people who really have an issue with what Obama did were the Conservative Base of the Republican Party. They’re all waving their flags and cheering for Romney as he pressed Obama about this, but it’s not selling with the Left, and Moderates don’t really care.
- Many of Romney’s criticisms of the President were couched in a way that most people missed the zing. A key example was his comment, in response to his own statements about Russia’s threat, “I would not have told Vladimir Putin that after the election I would have more flexibility”, referring to the open mic comment that the President did indeed make to the Russian Prime Minister.
- I have mixed thoughts about Mitt’s detour early in the debate into domestic topics. There is little question that the internal strength of the United States has an impact on how we are perceived on the foreign stage, but this looked like a deliberate attempt to hit some points where the Governor knew he had more control. It demonstrated the lightness of his total package in foreign policy, but the good news is that it didn’t really help Obama skirt his own failings.
Impact On The Race
It’s too bad that the candidates’ performances did not eclipse that of the moderator. We doubt this debate moves the race at all, especially considering that the last one was far more notable and it only pushed the polls by a point or two.
Obama being so aggressive and giving a rosy summation of his foreign policy successes surely helped him a bit. We expect, however, that this gain will be largely wiped out by Romney officially meeting the Commander-In-Chief “threshold” test.
One potential concern we have regarding Romney’s presentation on this evening was how his consistent posture of American strength in the world politically and militarily will play to the Independent voter. Though a huge part of his strategy was to not come off this way, we can’t help but think that some will easily put him in the G.W Bush mold.
We believe at this point, under heavy war fatigue, that many Americans would trade less deliverables on foreign affairs in exchange for less chance of a future conflict. We bet that most Americans would agree Romney would achieve more strategic objectives using a muscular approach, we are just not convinced they view them as particularly worth it at this point in time. Frankly we think it’s fair to say a future military conflict feels far more likely under a Romney administration and traditionally this has not played well with women and to a lesser extent Independents in general.
Romney’s avoidance of getting into bitter, edgy, attack filled exchanges with the president was absolutely on purpose. We believe the strategy decision here was informed by the calendar, meaning Romney wanted to ensure that the economy, and not foreign policy, was the focus of the next several news cycles. With now only 14 news cycles left, every one involving the economy directly benefits him while all those that don’t have a chance to hurt him.
In the macro we like the strategy. While he may have lost slightly on points, we think in the bigger picture Mitt Romney set the table well for the next two weeks…and inched ever closer to the White House.
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As a final thought, although the debate was on foreign policy, quite a bit of domestic policy was drawn into the conversation. Obama again accused Romney of wanting to see the auto industry die. Romney has repeatedly stated that his idea for the auto industry was to help them through a managed bankruptcy so that they could leverage existing government help without the government needing to bail them out. Obama said several times that people can “check it out” themselves. He’s right of course. I’ll challenge you to go ahead and just do a Google search and find out yourself, but I can also tell you Obama is wrong (I would have said he lied, but for all I know one of his staff told him to say that). A New York Times editor changed the title of a think piece written by Romney from “The Way Forward for the Auto Industry” to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” His recommendation was clearly a managed bankruptcy process with help from the federal government. Here is a link to the piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/opinion/19romney.html  and here is a write-up at marketwatch.com about the issue: http://blogs.marketwatch.com/election/2012/09/05/romney-and-detroit-did-he-really-say-let-u-s-automakers-fail/ . I found all this by simply doing a Google search on: “what did romney say about the auto industry”.