More than anything else, Mitt Romney needed to reassure Americans in the final presidential debate on Monday night that he was not a reckless warmonger. At that the Republican nominee largely succeeded, mentioning his desire for “peace” so many times that he might have been the late George McGovern.
But in making a vague and restrained case for a stronger America that would nonetheless steer clear of military involvement in hot spots such as Iran and Syria, Romney rendered almost moot any serious differences he might have with President Obama over foreign policy. All of which only raised a question not helpful to Romney’s case: Why replace the man in the Oval Office?
Indeed, perhaps the most striking moment of the 90-minute debate came when Romney, far more than he has in the past, in effect endorsed Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, saying “the surge has been successful ... we’ve seen progress ...” and “we’re going to be finished by 2014.” That was a contrast to Republican talking points in recent weeks suggesting that Romney might not hold tightly to Obama’s withdrawal deadline. And again and again, Romney retreated from the hawkish rhetoric he often favored during the GOP primaries. “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said of the Mideast.
In the end, almost as if they both recognized that their meager foreign-policy differences would never decide a too-close-to-call election, both candidates spent almost as much time turning the discussion back to their serious differences over the domestic economy and jobs as they did on the ostensible subject of the debate.
Startlingly, Romney even failed to resurrect his most familiar attack of recent weeks, over Obama’s allegedly deceptive handling of the attacks in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador on Sept. 11.
The Republican nominee’s criticism of Obama was, almost to a word, familiar. Romney resurrected his attack on the president’s alleged lack of leadership in the Middle East and Asia, saying Obama has failed to avert “chaos” in the region and hasn’t stood up to China.
“I look at what's happening around the world, and I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult. I see jihadists continuing to spread, whether they're rising or just about the same level, hard to precisely measure, but it's clear they're there. They're very strong. I see Syria with 30,000 civilians dead, Assad still in power. I see our trade deficit with China, larger than it's--growing larger every year, as a matter of fact.”
But apart from a couple of minor differences—for example, Romney’s pledge to have Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicted—the GOP candidate offered very few specifics as to how he would handle any of those problems differently. In fact, the two often sounded more like running mates than opponents, especially after Obama made a powerful case that Iran’s economy is “shattered” thanks to the tough sanctions he has orchestrated, and noted the rise of China’s currency and the doubling of exports since he came into office.
Even when it came to Israel, a key Obama vulnerability because of the president’s tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Romney sounded far more amiable than he has in the past, appearing to agree with Obama on how to deal with the threat to Israel from Iran. “I want to underscore the same point the president made … we will stand with Israel. And if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.”
While Romney sought to look presidential, Obama was far more on the attack, pointing to Romney’s inconsistencies on troops in Iraq, and he got in some good shots at Romney’s standard criticism about cuts to the U.S. military: “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Obama said. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
In their closing statements, the two candidates again resorted to what has become their bottom-line arguments for election. Obama focused on the mess left to him by George W. Bush, both on the economy and foreign policy, and said, “Governor Romney wants to take us back to those policies.” Romney repeated what has been his campaign staple, that the country can’t afford four more years of poor leadership.
Very few votes are likely to be changed by what happened in Boca Raton on Monday night.