Proves he’s ready for the job
Quite the opposite. The 90 minutes confirmed Romney’s ability to speak coherently, energetically and strongly on a range of foreign-policy issues. And because the debate veered so frequently from foreign policy, it allowed Romney to drive home his evidently effective criticism of the president’s handling of the economy and his failure to offer plans for the future.
He was engaged and tough and unrelenting, at moments veering into condescension; he really, really doesn’t like Romney, and it shows.
But Obama wasn’t the issue in the debate. Romney and his fitness or lack thereof for the presidency were. And the incumbent simply failed to cut his challenger down, or to plant the seeds with undecided voters that he is unfit for the highest office.
In large measure that was due to Romney’s rather peculiar strategy in the debate’s first half. He associated himself with what he deemed to be the policy successes of the Obama administration and seemed to suggest on matters from Libya to the Arab Spring to Syria that he would’ve followed the same path but done more, or done it better or handled it more competently.
Romney clearly had an overall strategy, which was to appear as a man of peace and thereby to deny the president the target Joe Biden kept shooting at in the vice presidential debate: Romney the evil neocon warmonger thirsting to throw US troops back into Iraq, to keep them in Afghanistan, and to commit them to Syria and Iran.
So determined was he to do this that he chose not to score points on the slippery stories about the Benghazi killings. He complimented the president on the way he handled the ouster of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. And both he and the president practically began reciting the text of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address as they harmonized on the need to bring freedom and democracy to the Arab world and elsewhere.
Most telling (and disturbing from a policy perspective) was Romney’s flat assertion that he would follow the president’s lead and remove all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — which contradicted Paul Ryan’s assertion in the vice-presidential debate that offering a time limit of that sort was an invitation to Taliban hostility.
If the president “won” the debate, he won it in these first exchanges, because Romney wasn’t challenging any of his assumptions. Romney kept saying he wanted to “step back” and offer an overview of a geopolitical problem, because doing that was the best way for him to demonstrate his mastery of the subject matter and comfort with the topics.
But Romney caught fire in the second half — challenging Obama on Iran, delivering a knockout peroration on Pakistan and offering his best account yet of how he’d approach China’s currency manipulation.
Now, when it comes to China and the tough trade-war talk flung around by both campaigns, the disingenuousness of both Obama and Romney is disheartening — but since they’re both equally guilty, the issue is kind of a wash.
Romney may not have closed the sale last night; we can’t know that yet. But he closed out his debate year by doing everything he has wanted to do since he won the Republican primary: Present himself as an uncontroversial choice for the 60 percent of Americans who want a change from the course on which Obama has set the nation.
The campaign story for the past three weeks has been Romney’s rise. He can’t rise much higher; the president’s support is too strong. But Romney has denied his rival the argument that surely would’ve been the strongest case against him over the next two weeks. If the president tries to spend the fortnight in a futile attempt to convince people that it would be too risky to change leaders, he might inadvertently make the best case for his own defeat.