It was the foreign policy debate that just quite… wasn’t.
President Obama and Mitt Romney had agreed that the final debate of their series would be seated before moderator Bob Schieffer on a stage in Boca Raton, Fla., fielding questions on foreign policy.
In the early questions, Romney didn’t go after the administration’s double-speak, video-blaming, and preparedness in the Benghazi attack. The challengers then agreed against military intervention in Syria. Pundits were quickly calling this matchup the “big hug” compared to last week’s rumble on Long Island.
Then the last debate in this uncomfortably tight race soon veered into teachers’ unions, balancing the budget, encouraging small business, ObamaCare, and the auto bailout.
With one last televised showdown before Election Day, the former Massachusetts governor seemed eager to turn the conversation back toward his comfort zone — and voters’ priority issue — of the economy. Obama complied, leaving Schieffer to suggest multiple times — in what seemed more like a Sunday morning episode of Face the Nation than a potentially make-or-break national debate — that they turn back to foreign policy.
Mali got nearly as many mentions as China. Middle East watchers got more than their share of the questions that actually stayed on topic.
“This debate is a mess right now,” tweeted NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd.
Romney’s Libya answer, when asked about policy failures and whether the White House attempted to mislead the public on what happened, was a broader take on the need to deal with Islamic radicalism.
“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said. “We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run.”
“Governor Romney, I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaida, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East,” Obama said.
A sterner Obama stared at Romney during his answers, and Romney looked at Obama with a slight smile during the president’s time.
Vladimir Putin even made a brief — very brief — appearance.
“Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said.
“I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone,” Romney fired back, chiding the president that “attacking me is not an agenda.”
Romney and Obama came closer again when the governor reiterated his agreement with how the White House handled the Tahrir Square revolution and overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
Romney said the greatest national security threat the U.S. faces is a weakened economy, providing the evening’s segue into domestic issues.
“In order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job. You can’t have an economy that over the last three years keeps slowing down its growth rate. You can’t have kids coming out of college, half of them can’t find a job today, or a job that’s commensurate with their college degree. We have to get our economy going,” he said.
This led to the candidates trading barbs over unemployment numbers, Bush-era policies, new business formation, and education reform.
“The kinds of budget proposals that you’ve put forward, when we don’t ask either you or me to pay a dime more in terms of reducing the deficit, but instead we slash support for education, that’s undermining our long-term competitiveness,” Obama said. “That is not good for America’s position in the world, and the world notices.”
Schieffer finally cut in and said he wanted to shift things back to foreign policy, “because we have heard some of this in the other debates.”
Romney noted that the Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917, and the Air Force “is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947.”
“And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts,” he said.