Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Commanders in Chief

Commanders in Chief

A foreign policy debate for Cuyahoga County.

About 45 minutes into Monday night's Presidential debate on foreign policy, we found ourselves asking which of the two men on stage in Boca Raton was the incumbent and which was the challenger. President Obama kept attacking Mitt Romney for various things he had said or claimed he had said, while the Republican mostly tried to look fluent on the issues and steady enough to be Commander in Chief. Maybe Mr. Romney really is leading in the polls.
If Mr. Obama wanted to make the Republican look "wrong and reckless," as he said, he surely failed. The former Massachusetts Governor was so intent on appearing to be cool and steady that he avoided offering any major policy differences on Syria, Iran or Afghanistan. Most remarkably, he even refused to challenge the Administration's handling of the deadly assault on Americans in Benghazi.
Mr. Romney was clearly keeping his eye on his main challenge of the evening, which was looking Presidential on issues that offer an incumbent a natural advantage. He passed that test with ease, making no major mistakes while offering impressive detail on everything from the radical government in Mali—make that "northern" Mali—to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. He wasn't rattled, and if anything looked cooler than a sometimes peevish Mr. Obama. The President scored more debating points, but he looked smaller doing it.
The downside of Mr. Romney's caution is that he offered policies that he might not be able to sustain if he does win on November 6. On Syria, he promised no U.S. military action when events might well require it to protect our allies and prevent a larger war. On Afghanistan, he hewed so tightly to Mr. Obama's 2014 timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops that he more or less rebutted himself when he described the continuing threat to Kabul from terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Mitt Romney (L) and Barack Obama during the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida October 22, 2012

Most disappointing was his continuing insistence that he will label China "a currency manipulator" on day one so he can then levy tariffs. If he does do that on day one, what then? Does he think China won't respond in kind? Or perhaps he thinks the two countries can default to negotiations that will end with a whimper. But having promised voters so forthrightly and so often that he'll get tough with China, he might find that some voters feel betrayed. This is all bad enough as trade and monetary economics, but Mr. Romney may also be backing himself into a political corner.
By far the biggest gaffe—or deliberate evasion—of the evening was made by Mr. Obama when he denied paternity for the sequester defense cuts now set for 2013 and said they "will not happen." Mr. Obama's aides rushed out after the debate to say he meant to say the cuts "should not happen."
But the truth is that Mr. Obama has been using the fear of huge defense cuts as a political strategy to force Republicans to accept a tax increase. As Bob Woodward describes in his recent book, Mr. Obama and the White House helped to devise the defense sequester strategy—no matter the actual risk to defense.
No doubt voters didn't see a big difference in this debate because it really wasn't about American foreign policy. It was a debate to change the minds of the remaining undecided voters in places like Ohio's Cuyahoga County. Both candidates can read the polls that show those voters care mainly about the economy and so both candidates returned again and again to their competing plans.
Mr. Romney won this economic debate going away because he doesn't have to defend the miserable record of the last four years. He could even invoke Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim that America's soaring debt makes the U.S. weaker. That's a critique of the Obama years that most Americans would agree with.

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