Neither candidate did well on Afghanistan. Romney touted progress training the armed forces there, and Obama took some credit: Afghan soldiers have made murdering American troops such a frequent feature that the U.S. halted most cooperation with Afghan troops weeks ago. Afghanistan is a country that stubbornly rejects modernity. Despite Obama’s statement that Afghanistan will be able to defend itself when the U.S. finally leaves, it is a country mired in backwardness until it decides not to be. A decade of close contact with the United States has done very little to move it toward the present.
Barack Obama strongly criticized many of George W. Bush’s policies before adopting them. Mitt Romney tonight agreed with some of those policies – the use of drones to eliminate terrorist leaders, for instance – while saying that the U.S. needs to be more engaged and able to project more real strength. Tie that back to his earlier riffs on the economy, and Romney is offering a stronger America than Obama has delivered. Romney peeled away some of Obama’s strength on foreign policy without the president ever noticing what he was doing, while continuing criticism of Obama’s weaker and less pro-American policies. An undecided voter would find nothing on foreign policy to scare them away from Romney, but probably got a better feeling that Romney has a better grasp of the economy and would represent America’s interests more strongly than Obama has. And the president never noticed what Romney was up to. I’m not sure most of the audience noticed it either, but Romney’s strategy may have frustrated partisans supporting him but probably prevented the needle from swinging in Obama’s direction coming out of this final debate. The overarching message Romney sent was that Obama is dangerously cutting the U.S. military, is alienating our allies, was slow to deal meaningfully with the likes of Iran and China, and apologizes to our enemies. Whether that message cut through remains to be seen.
Another overarching message came through both tonight’s debate and the first one: Romney comes armed with details and facts because policy and its effects truly interest him. Obama comes armed with attacks and insults because he has no record to run on. He comes armed with ideology and platitudes because he has never stepped beyond that world into the practical. He does not lead in Washington, according the leaders in his own party. Obama poses as the outsider with answers despite the fact that he is the sitting president who has presided over four years of failure. Romney poses as the president because, in these debates, someone has to and leading comes naturally to him.
Romney touted the free market’s power to build a strong economy while criticizing Obama’s “investments” in green companies that end up failing. Obama strongly objected and interrupted, but Romney steamrolled through most of his answer. At five minutes to the end, Romney and Obama sparred over which had the right answer to the auto bailout. The undecided voter surely had to weight the two mens’ records in business – or at least, weighed the one candidate who has a record in business.
Romney could have been far more aggressive on Benghazi in the opening round, and probably missed an opportunity there to go after Barack Obama’s principles and honesty. The fact is, Benghazi is a cover-up conducted right in front of our eyes. But Romney probably accomplished his mission in this debate without going for any single knockout. It’s difficult to see how the often smug and interrupting Obama changed the trajectory of the race. The third debate offered him no comeback mostly because Romney made no game-changing mistakes.
Score this debate a win on energy for Obama, but a win on the facts and the long game for Romney. Moderator Bob Schieffer was probably the best of the three presidential moderators. Both candidates got roughly the same amount of talk time, neither got the patented false Candy Crowley fact check.
Mitt Romney accomplished what he set out to do tonight. He went toe-to-toe with the sitting, snarking president three times and acquitted himself well enough to have the majority of Americans see him as the next president of the United States.