OK it wasn’t completely holding hands and unicorns, but for the better part of 90 minutes Barack Obama outlined a firm and reasonable foreign policy and Mitt Romney explained that he agreed wholeheartedly but swore he could do it better…for some reason. The biggest divergence between the two arose only when the candidates wandered over and over into economic policy.
You can look back at my real-time thoughts over at Balloon-Juice, who once again invited me to liveblog and allowed me to interact with their readers, which was awesome.
1) The Candidates Adhered To Their Respective Strategies: Most Americans trust President Obama on foreign policy and Mitt Romney clearly decided it was best to cling to Obama’s policies. By trying to sound like Obama, Romney is trying to calm the jittery nerves of any voters out there who might not want to change horses in midstream on foreign affairs. As a strategy it sets up Romney as an advocate of generally popular policies, but it carries with it the downside of implicitly elevating President Obama as a statesman.
Meanwhile, Obama entered the debate intent upon chipping away at Romney’s core credibility to undermine his overall trustworthiness. Obama was prepared for this strategy, making constant reference to prior Romney positions that he intended to run from throughout the debate. At one point Romney opted for a “Gish Gallop” and listed a number of foreign policy crises and implied that they were all the fault of President Obama. Rather than try to respond to all of these blippy attacks and invite conservatives to scream and point at any issue Obama might undercover, Obama pivoted to take the offensive and listed a number of reckless Romney statements from earlier in the campaign that Romney was denying tonight.
2) Libya Is Done: Much to the chagrin of hacks like Rep. Darrell Issa and Rep. Peter King, the Romney campaign made the right call in jettisoning the critique of President Obama’s Libya policy. I have said over and over that this had the potential to be a powerful argument for Mitt Romney and it got lost in a string of irrelevant issues like, “did you think a mob provided cover to the terrorists?” and “why did you apologize for a YouTube video?” When Barack Obama shut down Mitt Romney last week and Candy Crowley joined the ranks of the most reviled humans in the conservative worldview, Libya became damaged goods for the Romney campaign. Attempting to resurrect the attack would only remind voters of the botched second debate. Indeed, it would probably be paired with more replays of that moment and that’d certainly not have helped Romney. But that didn’t stop Obama from trying to score political points by reminding voters that the alternative to the current Libyan political landscape was siding with Qaddafi. Romney was right to push the conversation away from this as quickly as possible.
3) Mitt Romney Failed To Win the China Bashing Issue: Mitt Romney really hates China. He hates it so much that Senator Marco Rubio, one of his key surrogates and once a possible VP choice, openly expressed concern that Romney would incite a trade war. Schieffer alluded to those comments and Mitt Romney was immediately on the defensive on the China question when he hoped to jump right into stock phrases like “currency manipulator.”
The reason Romney needed to score big on China is that his continuing weakness in Ohio can only be solved by peeling away working class voters who worry that China may steal their jobs. Romney needed to bash China and credibly cast Barack Obama as weak on China. Instead, Obama listed specific cases he brought against China and was prepared to cite Romney’s prior opposition to getting tough on China. Obama’s strong answer kept Romney unable to get the upper hand despite delivering his boilerplate objections to China.
Did anyone notice the auto bailout came up in the context of this discussion? Yeah…that wasn’t an accident, President Obama was coached to ensure that any discussion of China be forever tied with the phrase, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
As an aside, the two candidates got in a dispute over what the “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial actually said. In his most recent effort to rewrite that ill-fated article, Mitt Romney claimed that he actually was willing to provide government support for auto manufacturers going through bankruptcy. Barack Obama challenged this as a falsehood and Mitt Romney responded with his own, “look at the transcript” moment. As it turns out they are both a little right — the editorial does suggest federal government aid for auto makers, but only after the bankruptcy proceedings concluded. Given that financial observers agree that no private money was available to save the industry if it entered bankruptcy. So Obama was right about the big picture.
4) Horses and Bayonets: Mitt Romney argued that the Navy is dangerously under equipped because it operates fewer ships than in the past. Barack Obama then leveled a snarky lesson in military technology by explaining that horses and bayonets are on the decline too (having spent the weekend in a building that was constructed to train Army officers to serve in the cavalry that is now a fully converted classroom, I can attest to the decline in horses).
This was a well-crafted response, because it erased the fact that Mitt Romney was actually correct that Navy commanders do want more ships — around 25 or so. No one will remember that though because this line won the night.
5) Bob Schieffer Was Pretty Good: A lot of folks in the comments over at Balloon-Juice were miffed at Bob Schieffer’s moderation, but I just didn’t see it. I’ll admit Schieffer often found the candidates running deep into domestic policy, but he firmly quieted Mitt Romney’s now customary demands for more time to get the last word. His follow-up questions were on point, pushing Romney on specifics and challenging both candidates on interesting questions like whether or not the U.S. should have held fast to its ally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and actually acknowledging the controversial drone campaign pursued by the current administration.
Those are my quick hit thoughts. What did you all think?