Foreign-policy debates between the presidential contenders follow a more predictable pattern than encounters over domestic policy. Inevitably, the challenger accuses the incumbent of indecision and drift and explains how he will bend the world more to his will by showing strength and leadership; the incumbent, with more gray hair than four years earlier—some of which was acquired in long, frustrating negotiations with other nations—tries to explain, without appearing defeatist, that the world isn’t always so easy to command.
Monday night’s final encounter between President Obama and Mitt Romney honored all of those conventions, albeit with fewer sparks than have marked previous such events. But even an evening that was more seminar than slugfest produced some takeaways worth noting.
1. Obama displayed much more confidence and command, and drove the debate far more than Romney. Obama delivered the evening’s most memorable retort (“We also have fewer horses and bayonets”), offered a sharper message, and conveyed a deeper gravitas in dealing with the world. Yet Romney avoided any major damage by, in effect, moving to hold Obama in a clinch for most of the evening. Obama showed much more confidence on the stage, yet Romney’s decision to stress reassurance over contrast, and to narrow rather than sharpen many of the differences with Obama, suggested a kind of confidence about the race. The governor seemed to be playing this evening to not lose rather than to win, which suggests that his team didn’t feel the need to do anything dramatic to shake up the race. For better or worse, it was the president who displayed the most urgency.
2. Romney appeared to have one overriding political goal in this final debate, which was the same goal as Obama's in the second debate: to court women voters. From his very first answer (when he said of Islamic extremism, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess”) to his talk of “gender equality” as a key to stabilizing the Middle East, to his renunciation of military intervention in Syria, to his softer tone on Iran (its nuclear program, he said, should be deterred if possible “through peaceful and diplomatic means”), Romney moved preemptively and relentlessly to prevent Obama from portraying him as excessively belligerent or a warmonger. Almost entirely gone was the steely hard-liner who spent much of the GOP primaries accusing Obama of weakness and pledging to confront America’s enemies more forcefully; it was as if the lamb had eaten the lion. In that way, this debate was the foreign analogue of the first debate, when Romney sanded down the hard edges of so many of his domestic-policy positions, it’s a wonder he didn’t leave shavings under the podium. The approach worked in one sense: It prevented Obama from even trying to portray him as a threat to start another war. But it also muddled his contrasts with Obama and opened Romney to an entirely different criticism from Obama.
3. That was the charge that Romney was offering an unsteady and inconsistent hand in dangerous times—or, as the president put it, “wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.” Obama didn’t so much condemn Romney on the substance of his policies as on their fluidity. Throughout the evening, Obama was at his most effective contrasting the mild Romney sitting across from him with the bristling candidate of the primaries. And in painting that picture, Obama went beyond the usual argument that such shifts raise questions about whether voters can trust what Romney is saying. Instead, he maintained that Romney’s evolving positions would undermine his effectiveness as president.
4. For any challenger, the principal goal in a foreign-policy debate is to cross the bar as commander in chief. For most voters, Romney probably cleared that bar, but he didn’t vault over it. He seemed much more tentative than in the first debates, and his efforts to blur contrasts probably left some viewers confused on how exactly he would differ from Obama: At several points, he seemed to be simultaneously accusing the president of not being tough enough while promising himself to avoid military confrontation anywhere. (“We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan,” Romney said at one point, in the sort of declaration that he might have denounced 10 months ago if it had come from Obama’s lips.) Obama seemed far more confident in his direction and his case.
5. How much that matters to the trajectory of the razor-thin race is another question. Foreign-policy presidential debates can become a bit like academic seminars disconnected from the larger themes of the campaign, or the immediate circumstances of voters’ lives: Within 25 minutes, Romney was talking about encouraging entrepreneurship in Egypt, which has ranked relatively low on the list of concerns for voters in most swing states this year. Five minutes after Romney brought up Egyptian free enterprise, he veered into a lengthy case against Obama’s economic record. It was 15 minutes before either man returned to foreign policy. Obama’s strong closing statement—his final chance to deliver a message to a debate-sized audience—touched hardly at all on foreign policy, instead framing the choice in the race in precisely the way he failed to do in the first debate. Following the evening’s pattern, Romney was much less vivid. When it was over, the two men and their families spent much more time than after the first two debates chatting amiably on stage. Those are likely to be the last pleasantries they exchange before Election Day.