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Foreign policy debate veers to domestic

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 10:35 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and moderator Bob Schieffer listen during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

Michael Reynolds, AP

Mitt Romney played to run out the clock. Sensing that momentum was on his side, Romney’s task was to reassure skeptical viewers — especially women — that he was not a warmonger. Obama played like the one anxious to score, jabbing Romney repeatedly all night long, rarely speaking without sending a shot across the table.

“For the most part, the president’s tone fit the gravity of the issues under discussion,” wrote Michelle Cottle at the Daily Beast. “But even when he flirted with humor, it was angry humor. 'The 1980s are calling, asking for their foreign policy back.' 'You say we have fewer ships than 1916. We also have fewer horses and bayonets.' Snap.”

The paradox was captured by Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast, who headlined, “Obama slams A Passive Mitt Romney as Reckless on Foreign Policy.”

“This was not the Mitt Romney of the first or second debate,” Kurtz wrote, “Sounding like a political scientist at times, he had clearly made a calculation that playing it safe and demonstrating world knowledge were sufficient in a race in which many polls are trending his way. He steered clear of anything that might be interpreted as an aggressive call to action.”

“The President is determined to pick a fight tonight,” Tweeted NBC’s David Gregory, “Romney determined to avoid it. What does that say about where each camp sees the race?”

The results, based on flash polls, were somewhat mixed, but there were serious doubts about whether anything here would change the trajectory of the campaign.

CNN’s flash poll gave the nod to Obama, 48 percent to 40. But as David Gergen observed on CNN, to focus on the “winner” polls off point. “I think Romney passed the commander-in-chief test, and people would be fairly comfortable with him in the oval office.”

The CNN poll rather proved Gergen’s point: Can the candidate handle the job of commander in chief? 63 percent said yes to Obama, and 60 percent yes to Romney. Given that Obama already holds the office, this might seem a vindication of Romney’s caution.

“Who did the debate make you more likely to vote for?” CNN asked. Obama 24 percent, Romney 25, and neither 50.

A Public Policy Polling survey after the debate summed up its likely minimal effects. Thirty-seven percent were more likely to vote for Obama after the debate, 31 percent less likely. Thirty-eight were more likely to vote for Romney, 35 percent less likely.

NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted, “Romney seemed so focus on being 'acceptable' that he didn't see the need to either respond to criticism or draw many distinctions. Too safe?"

One of the few unequivocal voices pushing a Romney win was the normally skeptical Charles Krauthammer at Fox News: “I think it's unequivocal: Romney won, not just tactically but strategically.”

Some issues that never came up: The EU credit crisis and the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

It was clearthat no one there really wanted to discuss foreign policy. At every opportunity, both candidates veered off to domestic issues. And the moderator let them run. Just about any issue quickly became an excuse to revisit domestic policy.

The oddest moment for Obama may have been when he was making a point about Tunisia. He said, "The nation: me," and then paused. The phrase echoed in the silence oddly for a moment -- sounding as if he had said "l'etat c'est moi" -- he continued.

Romney's oddest moment came toward the end, when he protested a bit too much on education, passionately insisting, "I love teachers!" I think we can all agree that we all love teachers, Schieffer cut in.

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