WASHINGTON, D.C., October 22, 2012 — If you support President Obama, you’re happy right now: He “won” tonight’s debate on foreign policy (and I’ll explain the scare quotes in a second). If you support Governor Romney, you’re happy as well: He didn’t hit as hard as you’d have liked, but he didn’t lose. Debate moderator Bob Schieffer was innocuous, though Obama seems again to have had more time.
If you’re still undecided, you probably haven’t been watching the debates anyway.
The scare quotes: In a real debate, there are strict rules. Points are given and deducted, and judges determine real winners and losers. The audience is irrelevant.
After each the three presidential and one vice-presidential debates, there’s been a lot of talk about winners or losers. To declare a winner right after the debate is foolish. Winning and losing has nothing to do with debate points, who had the best arguments, or who had the best command of the issues. It has everything to do with whether the debaters significantly changed people’s perceptions of them.
Mitt Romney won the first debate, and Obama lost it. Romney didn’t win it because his arguments were brilliant or convincing. He won because the people who watched didn’t see the rabid right-wing monster that had been created by the Obama campaign. They saw a man who seemed reasonably pleasant, moderate, and assertive. Obama lost it because viewers didn’t see the calm, collected and focused leader he is supposed to be, but a man who seemed bored, distracted, and unable to present a coherent argument for keeping his job.
The subsequent debates haven’t had the dramatic impact on the polls that the first one did. They seem to have had little impact at all. Hence it doesn’t really matter who won or who lost on points or style - those debates have been draws. And so, in all likelihood, was tonight’s.
President Obama “won” tonight because he was able to stick to his campaign’s talking points and hold to message. He was never forced to explain his failures. He didn’t lose. Romney didn’t “win” because he didn’t attack when he could have and didn’t do anything to further excite his supporters. For him it was a wasted opportunity. On the other hand he didn’t lose (no scare quotes there); he didn’t do anything to scare voters away or reverse the momentum of the campaign.
A month ago, Romney’s campaign seemed to be imploding. According to some analysts, his chances of winning the election were less than one in four. The first debate gave his campaign new life, and subsequent debates have done nothing to take that new life away. The odds are still against him in the electoral college, but it looks like close to an even bet.
The first debate mattered, but only as political theater. The next two made no difference. The debate tonight was almost a waste of time. Even by the low standard of the debates so far, it was low on content, straying from foreign policy into declarations of admiration for teachers and Obama’s mantra of “nation building here at home.” Obama resisted any urge he might have felt to stray from campaign boilerplate and insisted that there are no troops in Iraq (there are, of course, and if he was honest about wanting a Status of Forces Agreement, he intends for them to stay).
Romney’s foreign policy ideas seemed to include a strong dose of “me too.” Neither directly confronted the fact that a policy of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons is likely to require force at some point, avoiding discussion of how to deal with a nuclear Iran.
Do we have a better understanding of when and why the United States will intervene in another country’s internal conflicts? Did we learn anything tonight about our policy in Libya, what our military forces should look like in ten years, or whether a policy of assassination by drone is a good or bad foreign policy? Did the candidates share their plans for dealing with our aging nuclear arsenal? Did they discuss ways to improve our system of military porcurements? Did they lay out a clear vision for American national security or make a persuasive case for what our national security threats are?
Not really. There were some interesting points made and differences spelled out, however. Romney would downgrade our relationship with Pakistan (an excellent idea), but didn’t explain how he would persuade (or coerce) Pakistan to improve its behavior as an ally. Obama defines success against al Qaeda almost exclusively in terms of killing its leaders, seemingly unaware that killing bin Laden did nothing to damage the organization, which is actively recruiting throughout the Islamic world. Romney’s strategic vision for Syria was much sharper than Obama’s, viewing Syria as a means to undermine Iran, while Obama never even mentioned Iran in his discussion of Syria. Yet Romney failed to explain how his superior strategic vision would be translated into action.
For all that, the discussion of the Middle East wasn’t really about Israel, Syria and Iran, but about voters in Florida. The discussion about China was really about manufacturing jobs in Michigan and Ohio. More time was spent discussing Detroit and “nation building here at home” than Latin America, Africa, and all of Asia outisde of China combined. Obama’s closing statement included a mention of a “pivot to Asia,” yet he never mentioned India or Japan, and North Korea was almost entirely ignored.
On balance the debates have made a difference, but they’ve achieved almost nothing in the way of enlightening the public about the candidates and their policies. They’ve altered perceptions and revived a campaign, but anyone who’s relied on the debates to help make his mind up who to vote for is voting with his gut, not his head.
The candidates are very different on a number of policies, and this election is probably one of the most significant in decades. It’s unfortunate that the debates have been designed to minimize opportunities to raise serious policy questions and produce meaningful answers to them. Tonight’s debate was almost worthless, but no one should have expected otherwise. The football viewers may have made the better choice.
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