The third presidential debate was, in many ways, the mirror image of the first one- except the roles of the two candidates were reversed. A muscular, "on his brief" President of the United States delivered a verbal smack down on a timid, defensive Governor Mitt Romney, who looked for all who watched, like a man who wanted to be anywhere else in the world than on that stage talking about foreign policy with this President.
Obama came out hot and buried Romney early, not just with his conversational, well versed and articulate defense of his own policies, but dismissing Romney's ideas as merging the foreign policy of the 1980s with the social policy of the 1950s and the economic policy of the 1920s. Obama's narrative frame was clear - what little people could use to judge Romney on in regards to foreign policy showed his rival was not qualified to be Commander-in-Chief; from Iraq to Afghanistan, Iran to China, Obama relentlessly went after the Romney "record" even as Romney was dancing as fast as he could to wrap his arms around the President and *his* policies. The kill shot occurred early on, when the topic turned to a canned talking point about the size of our Navy being smaller than it was in 1916, Obama dropped this hammer on Romney:
But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works.You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
The clear take away? Romney's unfit to be Commander-in-Chief. That line reinforced what was obvious from the first question - Romney was uncertain and tentative with his answers, fearful of making a dreaded "gaffe" that would expose his ignorance of the topics being presented. He stammered his way through a softball question on Libya, drifting into other areas of the Middle East, briefly highlighting the danger posed by Mali (of all places) and failed to respond to the question posed by moderator Bob Scheiffer directly. By the 30 minute mark, Obama's mastery was so apparent, Romney had no choice but to try and pivot the discussion to economic and domestic policy. For about 15 minutes, that righted his ship, but when Scheiffer re-asserted control and turned the conversation back to foreign policy, Obama effectively counter-punched when Romney went for another of his favorite talking points, that the President had gone on an "apology" tour to the Middle East and had dissed Israel. To this, Obama responded:
And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Va'Shem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable. And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining dowm from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms. And I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids. Which is why as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.So that's how I've used my travels, when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region. And the -- the central question at this point is going to be: Who is going to be credible to all parties involved? And they can look at my track record, whether it's Iran sanctions, whether it's dealing with counterterrorism, whether it's supporting democracy, whether it's supporting women's rights, whether it's supporting religious minorities.
From there out, the color in Romney's face and the wind in his sail flagged. What little he offered in terms of foreign policy prescriptions could be summed up as "I agree with the President …" on everything from a timeline for withdrawing from Afghanistan (another shake of the Etch-A-Sketch) to Syria to dealing with Iran, Romney clung to Obama's policies like a flagging boxer trying to get to the end of a round. And Obama, to his credit, kept pushing Romney off and battering him on his inconsistency, incoherence and past statements. What Romney was left with was the comfort of his stump speech talking points and a "word salad" of nouns, verbs and adjectives in search of a mission. His objective may have been "do no harm" in an effort to escape unscathed from Boca Raton, but, like Obama's Denver performance, Romney's flaccid performance could not inspire confidence in any but his most ardent supporters.
Obama on the other hand, shined. His mastery of the issues was apparent, his sarcasm was cutting, but appropriate, in light of the absurdity of some of the right wing talking points against him, and his sober, calm demeanor juxtaposed well with Romney's sweaty, staccato and unsteady mien. Obama further benefitted from Romney's attempt to bind himself to Obama's foreign policy, begging the question of why anyone would want to "change horses in mid stream" when the GOP's standard bearer tried to embrace the President's leadership. For those listening more carefully, Obama made a subtle (but important) point about his Presidency. He underscored why (and how) repairing the alliances left tattered under George W. Bush mattered - whether it was illustrating how re-engaging with Russia helped get those "crippling sanctions" passed against Iran or discussing how withdrawing troops from Iraq and getting buy in from other nations on Afghanistan allows us to re-focus our energy toward the Far East and China, Obama gave a muscular defense of diplomacy writ large and by inference, reminded voters that Republican foreign policy created much of the mess we find ourselves in today.
But Obama's merciless and deadly effective rebuttals to Romney's limp talking points are what is likely to be best remembered from tonight's debate. Obama underscored the seriousness of foreign policy, the primacy it plays in a President's responsibilities and affirmed that the American people are well served by his leadership. The same could not be said of Romney, whose diffidence toward the subject is troubling, but his lack of depth may be viewed as disqualifying to the thin slice of voters who are still persuadable. And unlike Denver, where Obama let Romney squirm off the hook and "Etch A Sketch" his prior embrace of more conservative policies, Obama was on top of Romney throughout the third debate, pummeling his challenger with his own prior statements to question how he would govern.
In a broader sense, the third debate confirmed something journalists have talked about throughout the campaign, namely, that the more voters see Romney, the less they like him. Romney's debate performances have gotten steadily worse as both Obama, and, to a lesser extent, the media, dissected his prevarications, inconsistencies and empty rhetoric. A telling moment came late in the debate, when Romney re-hashed his "I love teachers" line first uttered in Denver; but whereas that line sounded believable and moderate the first time around, it sounded panicked and forced at the end of Obama's 90 minute schooling of the ex-Governor. If there is some ineffable "Commander-in-"Chief" bar that the media speaks about, whatever hurdling Romney did in Denver (or at Hofstra for that matter), may have been undone. He meandered, he contradicted himself, he allowed himself to be pummeled by a barrage of opposition research on everything from his investments in Chinese oil companies that do business in Iran to his statements in 2008 about not moving "heaven and earth" to get Bin Laden. Obama's objective was to show Romney lacks the judgment to be Commander-in-Chief and Romney did little to disabuse people of that idea. While Obama's timidity in the candidates' first debate was harmful, he had two more opportunities to improve (and boy howdy, did he), but Romney has no do-overs. The last impression an audience of more than 50 million people will have of these two candidates was striking - a confident and aggressive President assuring the American people they can rest easy at night knowing he is in the Oval Office and a challenger who looked clueless and out of his depth.