We must remember that headed into this debate, the stakes were dramatically lower than one would expect from the final confrontation of the campaign. For better or worse, this election is dominated by domestic policy, with few people making their choice based upon foreign policy. The fact that this debate was intertwined with economic issues, especially for the closing portion of the night, made all of the foreign policy points even less consequential. As such, it’s quite clear that nothing said during the foreign policy portion of the debate will shift the momentum of the race in either direction.
With that said, it was very disheartening to hear Romney offer pale-pastel distinctions on foreign policy, often agreeing with the erroneous premises of Obama, and even ‘out-Obamaing’ Obama on the Arab Spring. He also let Obama get away with murder a number of times by openly agreeing with him on the need to take out Mubarak in Egypt – without hitting Obama for his insouciance towards the Muslim Brotherhood takeover. He even let Obama get away with lying about our alliance with Israel a number of times, although he got in a good shot at the end. And forget about Libya. He failed to attack Obama for lying about the Benghazi attack, even as news has surfaced that the State Department watched it all in real time (and knew there was no protest).
Overall, one watching this debate would not come away with a clear contrast in foreign policy, certainly not a conservative vision. Did the Romney campaign even see the Lara Logan speech, in which she offered a riveting indictment of Obama’s policies that have strengthened Al Qaeda and the Taliban? It certainly didn’t show. To the extent he ever criticized Obama, it was for not embracing the Arab Spring even more in Syria and even earlier in Libya and Egypt. “It’s wonderful that Libya seems to be making some progress.” Huh? Obama’s ouster of Kaddafi has flooded North Africa with Al Qaeda – a fact that Romney himself cited earlier in the debate. He committed to continuing aid for the Arab Spring and Pakistan as well. Romney also failed to tie the success of the drone strikes to intelligence gathered from the very interrogations that Obama vociferously opposes. If anything, he sounded more dovish: “we can’t kill our way out of this.”
Listening to the debate, one would never know who is who. They sounded the same. The only time Romney sounded strong was when he nailed Obama for his “flexibility” comments to Putin and his apology tour in the Arab world. Yet, through most of the debate, Romney felt uncomfortable taking a swing a low-hanging fastballs. When presented with the opportunity to nail Obama on Libya, he digressed into gender equality and humanitarian aid. At other points, he veered off into economic policy.
Inevitably, the debate turned to economic policy where Romney always performs better. However, he amazingly brought up the auto bailouts, and instead of hitting Obama for turning over the company to his union bundlers, Romney enthusiastically embraced the bailout and denied that he ever opposed it. It’s as if the Tea Party never existed.
One underappreciated point of the debate was when Obama contradicted himself on the sequester. On the one hand, he ridiculed Romney for worrying about cuts to the military, but within the same monologue, he promised that the sequester will not happen. That is news to a lot of people in Washington, and it will come back to bite him.
The amazing thing about the tenor of the debate is the way each candidate perceived his position in the race. Obama looked like the challenger as he attacked Romney on foreign policy, even though he’s said little about most of those issues. He clearly knows he’s behind in the race. Romney clearly believes that he is ahead and felt that he merely needed to look presidential, while staying above the fray and ignoring Obama’s pungent attacks. I’m not sure that this was a good strategy. It might not hurt him, but it denied him an opportunity to score a knockout and end this race.
More importantly, this debate should serve as a wakeup call to conservatives. It’s no longer a faint dream that Romney might defeat Obama. It’s becoming very likely as time runs out. We must prepare for the next four years beginning November 7. Once Romney wins, we will own all of the problems and policies that arise from his administration. We must be prepared to keep him in line and preserve the integrity of the Tea Party so that conservatives don’t lose credibility the same way they did during the Bush years. It’s heartening to see the entire conservative base unite behind Romney in order to get rid of Obama. However, in two more weeks, we need to distance ourselves from Mitt’s pale pastels, and begin standing for the bold colors that launched the Tea Party in the first place.
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