It was a battle of strategies last night in the final presidential debate. The Obama strategy was clear from the start: get in Romney’s face, get under his skin, push him into making a mistake by appearing to be a warmonger, and “win” by being the aggressor. The Romney strategy took longer to decipher, but it gradually came into focus: avoid getting into the tangles of details about who knew what when on Libya, appear knowledgeable about foreign affairs, stay above the fray and be presidential, critique the president where necessary but cast a vision for American leadership in the world. Oh, and along with all that, keep bringing the subject—even in a foreign policy debate—back to the horrible economy, which has to change if we are going to maintain a strong presence in the international realm.
How well did each strategy work?
Obama started strong and was the attacker throughout. Every exchange—and I do mean every—included sharp rhetoric attempting to label Romney a reckless, flip-flopping politician who would probably lead the nation into disaster in dealing with other countries. That part of the strategy was reminiscent to me of what Jimmy Carter tried to do with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Obama also repeated lines from the two earlier debates: Romney lies about his policies, Romney lies about Obama’s policies, Romney lies about . . . well, fill in the blank.
The split-screen that dominated the visuals throughout the debate didn’t increase Obama’s likeability factor. He looked permanently pugnacious; some commentators called his facial expression the Death Stare. It was almost unnerving to viewers, practically oozing condescension. The condescension reached its apex with two comments in particular. The first was when Obama sarcastically congratulated Romney for recognizing Al Qaeda is a threat [this coming from a president who is hesitant to call any terrorist act a terrorist act]; the second was when he lectured Romney on the size of the navy, “explaining” to him that we don’t need as many ships now because we have the type of ships on which planes can land. And we don’t need as many horses and bayonets as in 1916. He was practically dripping with disdain for Romney. Pure egotism.
And then there were those constant interruptions. Apparently Joe Biden rubbed off on him. He didn’t want Romney to be able to complete his comments; Obama broke in continually to try to disrupt Romney’s thoughts.
More than one commentator noted that if a person didn’t know which candidate was the incumbent president and which was the challenger, he would probably conclude Obama was the one challenging for the job. The challenger in any debate is widely perceived as the one currently on the losing end who has to do whatever he can to catch up. Ever since that first disastrous debate for him, Obama has truly been playing catch up. All the polls are trending toward Romney. So last night was a last-ditch effort to paint himself as The He-Man. Instead, he enacted the part of The Bully.
Romney did not begin confidently. He appeared a little wobbly. It took a few rounds of questions before he got on track, but once he did, I believe he accomplished what he set out to do. By the end, he clearly came across as presidential, informed on the issues, and able to parry all the personal attacks without allowing Obama to rattle him. He maintained his composure and came across as the grownup in the debate. Further, his closing statement was little short of marvelous, appealing to optimism for the nation’s future. Again, he was partly Reaganesque in his approach.
Would I have preferred a more aggressive Romney? Well, my emotions would have been more satisfied if he had lambasted Obama more than he did. I would have liked to have heard a litany of Obama’s failures in the Libyan situation. I would have counseled him to have been stronger on that. Yet I know most voters are not clued in on Libya and don’t care that much about it. To have become entangled in a timeline of events there would have taken time away from the overall foreign policy vision he was trying to cast.
Romney was strong on Israel and pointed out Obama’s failure to visit that country during his entire first term, even though he had been in the region and spoke in Egypt. He also correctly criticized the president for his ongoing apology tour, a remark that made Obama bristle.
So, when it comes to style, what we saw was a focused Romney who exuded calmness vs. a combative Obama who, to me, continues to manifest peevishness and an always-simmering condescension.
On the substance, Chris Wallace of Fox News—and not Wallace and Fox only—called out Obama afterwards for some obvious inaccuracies in his distortions of Romney’s stances, particularly on the number of troops that should have been left in Iraq and on the auto bailout. While he may have scored points in the debate for making such statements, this is another case of perhaps “losing the week” after the debate as his distortions become the center of attention.
When it comes down to who should be considered the winner of a debate, shouldn’t truthfulness be the primary criterion? If so, Romney won big. His strategy was sound, and he carried it out effectively.