Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Perfectly Plausible President

A Perfectly Plausible President

All Mitt needed to do was sound reasonable. He succeeded.

Mitt Romney needed to pass the usual tests for Republican presidential candidates in his debate Monday night with President Obama.
There was the Ford test (alternatively known as the Palin/Cain/Perry test): Would Mr. Romney say something so obviously misinformed, so manifestly silly, so revealingly ignorant as to disqualify him from serious consideration as a prospective commander-in-chief? He said nothing of the sort.
There was the Goldwater test (unfairly named, but reputations are stubborn things): Did Mr. Romney make pronouncements so belligerent as to make ordinary people fear for their children's safety—or at least provide David Axelrod a chance to make it seem as if he did? He did not, though that won't stop Mr. Axelrod from trying.
And there was the Bush test (not unfairly named but mistakenly understood to mean ideology when it ought to be about consistency): Would Mr. Romney find a deft way to define his foreign policy as something other than a retread of the 43rd president—but also as something defensible, distinctive, and (not least) identifiably Republican?
On this score, Mr. Romney succeeded, too, if only in a manner coyly calculated to raise the hackles of every conservative who has harbored doubts all along about the Massachusetts governor.
Mitt Romney

"We can't kill our way out of this mess," he declared early in the debate, a point that, had it been made by Mr. Obama, would have been treated as evidence of Democratic pusillanimity. He offered a vision for Mideast social and economic progress so wholly unobjectionable it would have made any Peace Corps volunteer proud. On Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, drone strikes and China he offered policy prescriptions that—as Mr. Obama didn't fail to notice—were all-but identical in substance to the administration's.
He even got in a personal dig on President Bush toward the end, in connection to the auto bailout.
Did it matter? I doubt it. There's a case to be made that Mr. Obama has been a disengaged, poll-driven, inconsistent, credulous and cocksure steward of American foreign policy. Mr. Romney didn't seem interested in making it, and as a matter of politics didn't need to make it. His most effective turns in the debate came when he brought it all back to the economy. He seemed reasonable and tempered and pragmatic and unruffled and therefore presidential.
Impressions in politics can be forever. Foreign-policy positions are, as the Romney campaign might say, strictly Etch-a-Sketch.
Then there was Barack Obama. He also needed to pass some tests in this debate, especially with voters who in recent weeks have been casting more skeptical glances at his foreign policy.
For any Democrat, there will always be the Carter test. Mr. Obama has so far operated on the assumption that dispatching Osama bin Laden and ramping up the drones strikes would forever insulate him from accusations of Carterism.
Yet memories of the Carter administration echo in the Muslim Brotherhood's ascendancy in Egypt, and the perception of weakness abroad caused by malaise at home, and the standoffish manner toward reliable U.S. allies and ingratiating manner with longstanding U.S. adversaries.
Undecided viewers of the debate will probably concede that Mr. Obama passed the Carter test with yet another barrage of bin Laden death notices. But the impression that here is a president presiding over malaise will linger.
Next there is the Nixon test, unexpectedly brought about by events in Benghazi and the administration's shape-shifting accounts of how it happened and what followed. As the old question goes: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
This debate should have been the occasion to answer it, after the missed opportunity in the last debate. That it didn't happen will someday be understood as either a missed chance for Mr. Romney or a careful calculation. But the upshot was that the president dodged the Nixon test.
Finally there is the Clinton test. Remember the time Mr. Clinton lobbed cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan—right when he was admitting to his affair with Monica Lewinsky? Or the time he bombed Baghdad—just as he was facing impeachment in the House? With Bill, everything was political. With Barack, it's that and then some.
Two points in particular: Mr. Obama referred at least twice to Israel as "our greatest ally in the region," a subtle but definable shift from his usual references to the Jewish state being one ally among several. This is the kind of pandering that fooled Jewish-American voters once. Will it fool them again?
And then he said: "One thing I've learned as commander in chief, you've got to be clear to our allies and enemies about where you stand and what you mean." If only that described the president we've had these past four years.
Score-keepers will say the debate went for Mr. Obama. Maybe it did. But Mitt Romney emerges looking like a perfectly plausible president—which was no doubt all he wanted from tonight.

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