Monday evening, October 22, 2012 – and that was the last of the Saint Louis Cardinals this year. Up the coast in San Francisco the Giants beat them for the third time in row, in the last game of a seven-game series. It was an epic fold and the Giants get to move on to the World Series – not that anyone cares. It’s just baseball, and the one-game wild-card playoffs followed by the best-of-five divisional playoffs, followed be the best-of-seven league championship series, gets tiresome. The announcers and color-guys and grizzled veterans brought in for their insight, such as it is, try to convince anyone who tunes in that the game at hand is a do-or-die heroic confrontation that will determine everything – but it isn’t. What you get is an incremental step in a long process. People might tune in for the World Series, or the last game of the World Series, or the final innings of the last game – but the intermediary steps in the process are pretty boring. Each, in and of itself, doesn’t mean much. It’s obvious that real baseball fans like process, in all its hesitating intricacy. They can’t get enough of it. Normal people like outcomes. Who won it all? The rest doesn’t matter.
That would mean that normal people weren’t watching the baseball game up in San Francisco – it was just one step in a much longer process. The alternative was the third and final presidential debate, also kind of the final game in a secondary series in a way. Romney clearly won the first game, the first debate, against a lackluster Obama, and then Obama came roaring back and won the second debate, trouncing Romney, making him look foolish, and this third debate, about foreign policy would break the tie – but of course the World Series in presidential politics is Election Day in November. This was only about getting there, part of the process, and perhaps only of interest to those who love process itself. This third and deciding debate probably won’t shift any votes one way or another – just who is voting for whom was locked in long ago, and moving those very few undecided voters in those very few swing states may not make any difference at all. All the polls show the race tied, with the momentum of things seeming to favor Romney and structural issues, having to do with the Electoral College and key voting blocs like women and Hispanics and so on, favoring Obama. You had to be a fan of process itself to find this one debate interesting.
As for the hesitating intricacy of the process with this debate, it seems Romney agrees with Obama on just about everything in foreign policy, and says he never said he didn’t – ever. That frustrated Obama, which meant Romney won, hands down. All Obama could do is shout no, that’s not what you said, even yesterday, on this, and on this, and on this. Romney simple said nope – I never said those things, not any of it. And then Romney just smiled. He knows that no one reads those next-day fact-checkers, and perhaps America was laughing at Obama. Obama got skunked.
Josh Marshall offers his Shorter Mitt Romney – “We’d do exactly what you’re doing. But I’d be President!”
Maybe that was all this was, but Marshall also had this quick reaction:
The first half hour was a draw, though President Obama scored by default when Romney either didn’t or couldn’t attack on Libya.
After that, though, Romney began to falter as Obama became more direct, organized and declarative. Romney seemed increasingly lost. Obama seemed comfortable, happy. The visuals told the story. Romney was sweating a lot and looked like he was in pain. Into the second half of the debate Romney’s answers seemed more jumbled and unfocused. There was even that rambling and generally uncontroversial digression on Pakistan. Why? He seemed lost.
Translated into Romney visuals he had what President Obama had in the first debate: that look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but on that stage.
That’s all process, and may explain why the CBS News instant poll showed that Romney won the first debate 46 to 22 and that Obama won this one 53 to 23 – if you’re keeping score. It wasn’t substance.
The New York Times’ account of this last debate shows that:
For all its fireworks, the debate broke little new ground and underscored that the differences between the two men on foreign policy rest more on tone, style and their sense of leadership than on particular policies. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney seemed to align on matters like withdrawal from Afghanistan, the perils of intervening in Syria and the use of drones to battle terrorists.
While they varied in degree, the heart of their clash rested on who would pursue the same national goals more effectively and ensure America’s enduring economic and security role overseas.
Chopping the air with his hand, Mr. Obama came armed with a host of zingers. He accused his opponent, sitting at a table next to him, of “trying to airbrush history” and of seeking to “do the same things we do but say them louder.” At times, Mr. Obama lectured and even mocked Mr. Romney on the details of certain policies, hoping to expose him as an uninformed pretender at the risk of coming across as condescending. Mr. Romney at times sat stiffly, his hands before him, back ramrod straight.
It was kind of pathetic. All Romney was doing was trying to do was show he was presidential too. Unfortunately, to pull that off he had to drop all the neoconservative invade-and-occupy stuff that requires others to adopt our way of life or die. That meant he adopted the president’s positions, for the evening, but stressed he’d do the same things with much more swagger, which would put the world in awe of us again. Obama caught him out on that. At one point Romney said, of the current mess in the Middle East, that “we can’t kill our way out of this.” Dick Cheney’s new mechanical heart must have skipped a beat. John Bolton was weeping in his massive snow-white mustache.
So be it. The lines of battle were this:
Picking up where he left off in last week’s debate, Mr. Obama went on offense from the start, lacerating his challenger for articulating a set of “wrong and reckless” policies that he called incoherent. While less aggressive, Mr. Romney pressed back, accusing the president of failing to assert American interests and values in the world to deal with a “rising tide of chaos.”
“Governor, the problem is that on a whole range of issues, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s now Iran, you’ve been all over the map,” Mr. Obama charged.
“I don’t see our influence growing around the world,” Mr. Romney countered. “I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home.”
Romney just didn’t say what he would do differently. You just had to trust him that he would do things differently, although that got harder as the evening went on:
The enmity between the men surfaced again and again, and the president seemed to have studied each attack line that Mr. Romney had used in the past, like his oft-repeated criticism of Mr. Obama’s supposed “apology tour” of the world. “You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations,” Mr. Romney said. “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
Mr. Obama hit back fast. “If we’re going to talk about trips that we’ve taken,” he said before pausing dramatically, in a reference to Mr. Romney’s foreign trip this summer, when he was widely derided for insulting Britain’s ability to host the Olympic Games and for holding fund-raisers in London and in Israel. “When I was a candidate for office, the first trip I took was to visit our troops,” he continued. “And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors. I didn’t attend fund-raisers.”
That wasn’t nice, but this was curious:
The top rising search term on Google during tonight’s final presidential debate tonight was “horses and bayonets,” according to the search engine giant, referring to President Obama’s rebuttal to Mitt Romney that the Navy didn’t need more ships.
That may be the only thing people remember from the evening:
President Obama told Mitt Romney that he was out of touch on his criticism of the current military structure, at the foreign policy debate.
“But I think Gov. Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” said Obama. “You mention the Navy, and how we have fewer ships than 1916. We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have aircraft carriers; we have ships that go underwater; nuclear submarines.”
“And so the question is not a game of ‘Battleship’ where we’re counting ships. It’s: What are our capabilities? So when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that makes sure our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home.
That’ll leave a scar. See some of the resulting Tweets – “You guys realize that unicorns are basically horses with bayonets growing out of their heads, right?”
Brian Beutler also notes the other attacks:
Obama took the chance to needle Romney on his adversarial position on Russia. “I’m glad that you recognize al Qaeda is a threat. Because a few months ago when you were asked the biggest threat facing America, you said Russia,” Obama said. “The Cold War has been over for 20 years. But governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Later Obama said directly to Romney, “You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia, despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it.”
There was Syria too:
Responding to Romney’s call for arming Syrian opposition and his critique of the Obama administration’s more cautious policy, Obama noted that “to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step. And we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping, that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region. I’m confident that Assad’s days are numbered. But what we can’t do is simply suggest that as governor at times as suggested that giving heavy weapons, for example, to the Syrian opposition is a simple proposition that would lead us to be safer over the long-term.”
There was Osama bin Laden:
Obama reprised a familiar line based on Romney’s position in the 2008 campaign that locating and killing Osama bin Laden would not be a top priority. “You said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man,” Obama said. “If we would have asked Pakistan for permission, we wouldn’t have got him.”
There was Iraq:
“You say that you’re not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq, but just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now,” Obama said pointedly. “You said we should have gone into Iraq despite the fact there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq, to this day.”
There was Afghanistan:
“You said that first we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan, and then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends – which means not only were you wrong, but you were confused and sending mixed messages to our troops and allies.”
It just went on and on, but all Romney had to do was be sitting on the stage and be discussing these things. For most folks that’s de facto presidential stuff – or that seemed to be the calculation.
James Fallows thinks that was the wrong calculation:
Obama did very well this evening, and Romney put up his worst showing… As a matter of substance, it was depressing in principle that this was the level of presidential-campaign discussion on China, India (nothing, or close to it), climate change and the environment (nothing I heard), energy (next to nothing), Europe (ditto). But it was more striking as a matter of substance that on virtually no issue did Romney make an actual criticism, of any sort, of Obama’s policy or record. Instead it was, “I agree, but you could have done it better.”
Marc Ambinder, however, thinks Obama was the one making a fundamental mistake:
Romney was betting that he did not need to take risks, and stands a better shot at winning the election the more people associate him with the economy. Deciding to let Obama once again be the aggressor carries real risks, because of the large audience, and because the contrasts in tone between the two candidates could be large enough that some voters who initially thought Romney crossed the credibility threshold might have second thoughts.
Matthew Dickinson is on the same page:
It is clear that Romney’s goal tonight was to appear as a credible commander-in-chief. To do so, he sought to avoid coming across as too militaristic, and instead adopted a policy of “me-tooism” by essentially coopting the President’s policy stances while avoiding staking out any detailed policies of his own. The President, in contrast, acted more as a challenger who knows he is in potential trouble. I think he probably scored more points, and had more memorable lines (horses and bayonets!) but the risk is that his tone, which bordered on sarcasm at time, might not have won over the undecided voters.
Over at Political Wire, Taegan Goddard is having none of that:
As the debate went on, Romney tried many times to move the international affairs discussion back to the economy where he was more comfortable. It was as if he had only 30 minutes of foreign policy talking points for a 90 minute debate. As a result he seemed to string together random thoughts which often made him sound incoherent.
Andrew Sprung admires Romney’s doggedness, but says it did him no good:
Romney could not be wiped off the stage. But Obama brought his A-game, and trumped him on fundamentals, effectively rebutting every charge of weakness, coming off every inch the seasoned, tested leader, and, crucially, puncturing some of Romney’s most enduring lies, effectively calling Romney a liar to his face.
Mark Kleiman says that really doesn’t matter:
Obama landed some heavy blows, while Romney maundered; in a sane world, Obama would count as the clear winner. In the actual world, it was more or less a draw. Romney’s capacity not to notice when he’s had a hole blown in him is astounding.
Across the pond in the Guardian, Richard Adams gives Romney the win for precisely that reason:
I’d say Romney won it because he just lashed away at Obama without regard to subject or logic, showed that he knew enough about what passes for foreign policy that he’s not going to fart in front of the Queen or whatever. And Obama did what he did in the first debate: lay out Romney’s multiple positions and expect that would be enough. Well it wasn’t then and it wasn’t now.
Matt Taibbi just throws up his hands:
Just going by the reactions from Carville and Fleischer on CNN (I’ve switched back because that’s where you go to find out the conventional wisdom) it’s already clear what the talking points will be. Fleischer talking about how this debate doesn’t matter because the public is focused on the economy, that’s a clear signal that he knew that Romney fucked the dog tonight. This should be the death-blow to Romney, but I’ve said that before and been wrong.
We do live in an odd world, and Daniel Larison adds this:
Overall, Obama had the better of the debate, but Romney made no fatal errors and went out of his way to claim that he was deeply concerned to promote peace. If viewers were already inclined not to believe Romney’s hawkish campaign rhetoric, Romney’s debate performance provides some encouragement to them. If one assumes that Romney was just downplaying his hawkish positions for the sake of a general election audience, there was nothing that Romney said tonight that was at all reassuring.
It may have been a wash, although Time’s Joe Klein says it shouldn’t have been:
Obama didn’t have a single weak or unconvincing moment… President Obama won the foreign policy debate, cleanly and decisively, on both style and substance. It was as clear a victory as Mitt Romney’s in the first debate. And Romney lost in similar fashion: he seemed nervous, scattered, unconvincing – and he practiced unilateral disarmament, agreeing with Obama hither and yon…on Iraq (as opposed to two weeks ago), on Afghanistan (as opposed to interviews he’s given this fall), on Libya and Syria and Iran.
Andrew Sullivan also likes what he heard:
After the first truly epic implosion in the first debate, Obama has clawed his way back in the following two, in my view. He has marshaled his arguments as potently as possible; he brought the themes of his candidacy together compellingly. His advantage on foreign policy will not, I think, diminish; it may well strengthen. And that is only just. After eight years of the most disastrous, misguided, immoral and a catastrophic foreign policy, Obama has brought the US back from the brink, presided over the decimation of al Qaeda, the liberation of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and restored America’s moral standing in the world.
For Romney, he made no massive mistakes. No Gerald Ford moments. And since the momentum of this race is now his, if now faltering a little, a defeat on points on foreign policy will be an acceptable result. But this was Obama’s debate; and he reminded me again of how extraordinarily lucky this country has been to have had him at the helm in this new millennium.
He’s flawed; he’s made mistakes; but who hasn’t? If this man, in these times, with this record, against this opposition, does not deserve re-election, then I am simply at a loss for words. I have to believe the American people will see that in time.
Maybe they will, but Michael Tomasky says cool it, as this wasn’t the big game after all:
Tuesday, it’s back to Detroit and the bailout (not that we left it), back to the economy, back to the ad wars and the ground games that are going to grind this thing out anyway. This wasn’t much more than a diversion. Obama won it, but the important question is whether it will matter that he won it, or, did Romney meet a certain threshold and that’s enough for enough swing voters.
Yes, as in baseball, people might tune in for the World Series, or the last game of the World Series, or the final innings of the last game – but the intermediary steps in the process are pretty boring. Obama beat Romney in the third and final game of this series, and beat him badly. And the same evening the Giants shut out the Cardinals nine to nothing – that too wasn’t even close. But neither was the World Series – and if you’ve read this far you’re obviously one of those odd people who likes process in all its hesitating intricacy. Normal people like outcomes. Wait until November.