Tuned In

Debate Watch: Bringing a Bayonet to a Knife Fight

In the final debate, nominally on foreign policy, Barack Obama came ready for a cavalry charge, while Mitt Romney seemed content to watch from the trenches.

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The final debate of the Presidential campaign was nominally about foreign policy. And I suppose it was, to me, at least, because I don’t live in Ohio.

As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama faced off one last time, at a table in Florida, Bob Schieffer started things off by trying to engage the candidates on Libya and last month’s consulate attack in Benghazi. Republicans have seized on the attack, its aftermath and the Administration’s handling of it politically—including Romney at the last debate—so the idea, it seemed, was to get to the fireworks right away.

The issue barely ignited a sparkler. For whatever strategic reason, Romney declined this time to press the Benghazi issue forcefully. As the topic expanded to the wider Middle East—”the Middle East” makes up about 90% of “the world” in the cartography of US presidential debates—he made little forceful challenge, either.

What world issues were the candidates ready to engage on? The auto industry bailout. The deficit. Unemployment and jobs for college graduates. Hiring teachers. All those are world issues, I guess, in the sense that the United States is still part of the world, and also some teachers teach geography. But more than that, it was a seeming recognition that the terms of this election involve the U.S. economy, and there was probably going to be no penalty to the candidate who ignored the topic of the debate to Put America First.

Nor did moderator Bob Schieffer act especially firmly to keep the conversation on point—though he did, mostly, strike a balance between the laissez-faire Jim Lehrer approach and the hands-on direction of Martha Raddatz in the vice-presidential debate. (He did, like Lehrer, rely too much on the topic-as-question approach: tell us what you have to say about Libya, &c.) Mostly absent, from questions and answers: Latin America, India, most of Europe, and climate change, for a start.

Schieffer may not have had much incentive to command the discussion back to world issues, since challenger Romney did not seem to offer much in the way of substantive disagreements or different policies that he’d pursue. His approach instead was to concede that he would pursue, or would have pursued, the same course as Obama—on Iran, Libya, Syria—but that Obama should have done it better.

The most pointed, so to speak, exchange came when Romney repeated a criticism he’d made on the campaign trail—the the U.S. Navy now has fewer ships than any time since 1917—and Obama had an answer ready in the torpedo tube. (Remember way back in the misty days before the first debate, when the buzz was that Romney would be the one coming to the debate with canned “zingers”?) Yes, we have fewer ships, Obama said, sarcastically, because warfare has changed: we also have “fewer horses and bayonets.” Shortly after the debate, the medics at Fox News leapt into action to stanch the bayonet wound, noting that the Marines still in fact use bayonets (and conveniently ignoring that Obama said “fewer,” not “no” bayonets).

Romney, in any event, appeared to have left his bayonet at home. After the opening minutes of the debate, he seemed to flag—his answers were tentative and cautious, his tone more sedate than earlier; he sweated and his delivery was halting. Obama, on the other hand, seemed eager to press the commander-in-chief advantage, driving the pace of the debate and seeming to enjoy it.

It’s possible, pundits have suggested, that Romney kept a low profile in the debate because he believes he’s winning and was playing not to lose. (Conversely, maybe Obama’s aggression means his people don’t like the polls right now.) That’s possible—just as it was possible Obama thought the same in the first debate, and we saw how well that went. This is not to say that this debate will similarly affect the election; I’m not in the business of guessing how people who are not me will vote.

But it was dissonant at least, because to the extent that Romney has a critique of Obama’s foreign policy, it was at odds with his tone and body language at the debate. Romney has argued that Obama’s flaws in foreign policy are, not exclusively but largely, stylistic: “apologizing for America” (to use his debunked phrase), not asserting American exceptionalism forcefully enough, not being tough enough with rivals. But there was no tougher, more forceful Romney on stage last night; if anything, the governor seemed meek.

Whether it was discomfort with the subject or cannily executed strategy, Romney this time seemed like a guy who was ready for the debates to be over. On that issue, at least, he was likely in sync with many American voters.

Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences—the difference is they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.