Previewing Tonight’s Foreign Policy Debate
The general consensus is that, to date, the Presidential debates have been something of a wash. Mitt Romney was the clear winner of the first debate both because the President came across as so lackluster that even some of his supporters wondered if he even cared about winning the election and because Romney did an effective job of making the points he wanted to make. The President came out ahead in the second debate, thanks largely to the fact that he was much more engaged and forceful than he had been on October 3rd and because Romney made a few errors that allowed the President to take advantage. Unlike Obama in the previous debate, Romney’s performance in that second debate was not bad per se and it doesn’t seem to have had the same impact on the polls that the first debate did. As we sit here today, the candidates are essentially tied in the national polls, and also fairly close in the Electoral College projections, both with and without toss-ups included.
So now, we head into the final debate of this Presidential cycle in Boca Raton, Florida. It will be devoted exclusively to foreign policy, and will see both men sitting around a table with moderator Bob Schieffer, a format that is likely to cause both men to tone down some of the more forceful body language and rhetoric that we saw earlier in the month. Indeed, Romney’s campaign is already hinting that his demeanor tonight is likely to be different than it has been in previous debates, and we’ll likely see the same thing from the President. The National Journal notes that this is the last chance for both candidates to show themselves to a mass audience before the election. The last two debates have had upwards of 70 million viewers and, despite the fact that both Monday Night Football and the National League Championship Series are likely to draw a chunk of that audience away, there will be no other opportunity for either of these candidates to speak to an audience of tens of millions of people before Election Day. For that reason, this debate is important for both candidates.
Given the subject matter of the debate, though, it seems rather apparent that the candidate with the most to prove tonight is Mitt Romney. Foreign policy is an area where a sitting President always has the advantage because, well, he’s the President. He’s the one who has been making decisions in this area for the past four years and, in the case of Obama, those decisions include things such as a drone war that makes it hard for the GOP to say that he’s weak on terrorism and, of course, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Like all Presidential challengers, Mitt Romney is at a distinct disadvantage here. He doesn’t have any real foreign policy or military experience, and has been dependent on advisers to get him up to speed on these issues over the years he’s been running for President. Of course, President Obama had no real foreign policy or military experience when he ran for President, and he was running against a guy who, whatever you think of him, had it in spades. As with the Clinton-Bush match-up in 1992, though, the voters clearly didn’t care about that and it’s possible they won’t this time around either.
Walter Russell Mead argues that Romney at least needs to come away from tonight with a tie:
Governor Romney doesn’t have to discredit President Obama’s foreign policy or win a big argument over America’s global priorities to have a good night. His goal is a simpler one and easier to achieve; he wants to complete the work he began at the first debate and continued at the Al Smith dinner. Romney has made progress in the polls by establishing himself as a qualified alternative for voters looking for a change. Romney isn’t running for wonk-in-chief or the biggest, toughest hawk in the tree. His goal is to impress swing voters that he’s an acceptable replacement for the incumbent, and to perform effectively in the debate he needs to keep that goal firmly in mind.
President Obama’s consistent strategy in this campaign has been to tie Mitt Romney to the policy legacy of George W. Bush, defined by the White House as irresponsible, pro-rich policies at home and ill-considered hawkishness abroad. Governor Romney needs to realize that if the election is a referendum on W, he loses.
Governor Romney cannot run on restoring the Bush foreign policy. There is not a groundswell of support out there for the second coming of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Romney needs to present himself as the Goldilocks candidate here: if Obama is too cool on foreign policy issues, Bush was too hot—and Romney pledges to get it just right.
Governor Romney’s task in the third debate is easy to describe, harder to accomplish. He must attack President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy without allowing the President to portray the Governor as inexperienced, testy and wild. Governor Romney wants to remind voters of Ronald Reagan; Barack Obama wants to make him remind them of George W. Bush.
Mead strikes me as being largely correct. If Romney can get a draw out of a debate in the one policy area where incumbent President’s have an inherent advantage, he will have done quite well indeed. The odds of actually coming out a winner strike me as being pretty low unless Obama actually makes mistakes, which I think is rather unlikely at this point.
Daniel Larison sees danger for Romney if he talks about foreign policy as he had in the past:
The greatest danger for Romney is that he sabotages himself by repeating attack lines that only hawkish ideologues find credible. That would show that he is either just mouthing their phrases or so intent on proving that he is a hawk that he doesn’t care how politically harmful their hard-line policies are. For example, if he returns to dated, nonsensical complaints about the Green movement protests or missile defense, he wouldn’t land any hits on Obama’s record and he would demonstrate how much he relies on the movement conservative echo chamber for his arguments. The less that he sounds like the candidate who delivered the VFW and VMI speeches, the better it will be for him politically. A reliable standard for judging how well or badly Romney has performed is to see how the most ideological neoconservatives respond to what he says in the debate. If they are extremely pleased by his performance because he echoed their views, Romney will have lost the debate very badly indeed.
Based on what we heard on foreign policy during the “Town Hall” debate, especially the completely bungled response on the Libya question, the danger does seem fairly high that Romney will slip into that hawkish mode at some point during the debate tonight. When the subject of Iran comes up, for example, it will be hard for him to to mention the standard conservative line about the 2009 Green Revolution even though there’s little evidence that there’s anything the United States could have done at the time. Indeed, many members of the Iranian opposition explicitly said they didn’t want the U.S. to get heavily involved, even rhetorically, because it would play into the regime’s argument that the protests were being orchestrated by outside forces. The Libya situation is likely to be an area where Romney could fall into Obama’s trap as well, and at this point it seems clear that there’s little value politically in continually bringing that whole situation up.
At the same time, though, there are plenty of troubled areas of the world where U.S. policy seems to be, at best, muddled that Romney could use to his advantage. For all the glorious speeches about democracy that were made at the time, the Arab Spring has devolved into a situation where many of the most populous nations in the Arab world, principally Egypt, are drifting into a form of political Islamism that threatens to destabilize the region. How is the United States going to navigate in this new world, and what is our response going to be if our primary ally in the region ends up with hostile regimes on its northern and southern borders? And what happens if (when?) Lebanon goes the way of Syria? While we’re on the way out in Afghanistan, our plan to turn responsibility for security over the Afghans has become a pathetic joke in the wake of a massive increase in “Green on Blue” attacks. And even if we do leave Pakistan, it seems rather clear that Pakistan is going to continue to be a security concern for some time to come. The revolution in Libya has opened up vast swaths of territory for militant groups to hide, and has led to a civil war in Mali that has caused the central government there to lose control of the entire northern part of the country. Is Northern Africa going to be the new front in the War On Terror? And, if so, what are our plans there? President Obama’s supporters like to think that their candidate has an impeccable foreign policy record, but the truth of the matter is that he’s largely continued the flawed policies of his predecessor and, four years later, we’re left with a world that is far more unstable than it used to be and he has failed to make clear what his policy is in this brave new world. These are the types of areas where Romney could potentially make an effective case against the President tonight. Whether he’ll be able to do it is another question.
In the end, though, I have to wonder how much impact this debate is really going to have on the race. The polls continue to show that economic issues remain far and above the issues that voters are most concerned about, foreign policy is fairly far down the list. It is worth noting that a new Pew poll indicates that voters are skeptical about the Arab Spring’s aftermath now, but I’m not sure that’s the kind of issue that is going to play a big role in how those people who are still persuadable make up their minds before Election Day. Romney’s real challenge tonight is to show that he can pull off looking Presidential in a debate that covers a President’s most important job. If he can do that, he gets that tie we talked about and walks away from the stage in a fairly good position for the final two weeks.
Personally, I’m not making any predictions about how tonight will go. I thought Obama would do far better in the first debate than he did and I was wrong about that. I’m willing to expect the unexpected at this point.