Who Won the Third Presidential Debate? It Depends on How You Score It.

Political incumbents struggling to crack 47% within a couple of weeks of the reckoning day tend to fall. Voters claiming to be undecided have often already decided, they’re just waiting to see if the challenger stumbles or the incumbent somehow pulls out a miracle. Coming into the third presidential debate, President Barack Obama struggled to crack 47% everywhere while some polls have put former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s support as high as 52% nationally. The trends nationally and in the swing states have all run in Romney’s favor since the first debate. The second debate was marred when moderator Candy Crowley doffed her referee’s jersey, strapped on a pair of shoulder pads, and tackled Romney on his way into the end zone. The president also fired off a couple of howlers, admitting that he wants to restrict the right of poorer Americans to arm themselves, and saying that the low gas prices of the pre-Obama era were due to an economy in collapse. He mostly got away with both, moderator Crowley keeping the ref’s jersey on for those portions of that debate.


Debate three was to be about foreign policy, with no town hall audience, and a moderator who has been part of the Beltway landscape since the Jurassic age. Would CBS’ Bob Schieffer be biased Bob, the man who only leans left, or would he appear as balance Bob, allowing the combatants to use this final debate to make their own cases for themselves? Obama came in still making up ground lost in that first debate. His campaign has flailed between Big Bird, binders and Benghazi. Romney came in needing to close the deal and present himself to the American people as the captain who can right the adrift American ship of state.

Moderator Bob Schieffer led off with a question about Libya. What happened? Was it a policy failure? Was there an attempt to mislead the American people? Romney, wearing a dark suit with red striped tie, went first and set the scene in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Romney outlined the threats posed after al-Qaeda has taken power in a number of nooks in the region. He said the U.S. needs to “reject Islamic extremism” but did not hit hard on the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack on 9-11-12 and afterward. Obama said that he has promised to get to the bottom of the attack, but did not address the campaign of disinformation he and his team waged for two weeks to present the attack as a protest. He bragged about involving the U.S. in Libya’s revolution, but did not note that the vacuum of power left behind has given our enemies a chance to take root. Obama turned the question directly to Romney, who said that the U.S. should seek to help the Muslim world reject extremism without needing heavy American intervention. Shieffer interrupted Romney toward the end of his answer, and Obama then took two minutes to hit Romney for saying that Russia is a threat (it is). He rather directly scolded Romney: “Every time you’ve offered an opinion (on foreign policy) you’ve been wrong.” Obama also said, “I know you haven’t been in a position to execute foreign policy,” a statement which would have caused Sen. Obama and his supporters to bristle angrily four years ago.


Romney responded, “Attacking me is not an agenda” before correcting Obama and noting that Russia and Iran are both threats and al-Qaeda is not the only threat as Obama tried to imply Romney had said earlier. Romney hit Obama for telling the Russians he would have more “flexibility” on missile defense after the election, and for rejecting a status of forces agreement with Iraq, which would have left the United States some role in post-war Iraq. In response, Obama touted the U.S. alliance with Israel (he has weakened among Jewish voters after mistreating the U.S. ally) and his own policies. Throughout this segment, Romney opted for a low-key approach, while Obama tried selling himself as a strong advocate for U.S. interests. None of his policies have reflected such rhetoric. Schieffer tossed a curve at Obama: “It’s been a year since you called for Assad to go, but he is still there killing his people.” Obama said he had “organized the international community” but offered no plan that did not sound quite a bit like Libya (which was handled outside U.S. war power law), and al-Qaeda has appeared in Syria just as it appeared among the Libyan revolutionaries. Romney called Syria an opportunity for the U.S. that is being missed under Obama’s leadership.

Twenty minutes in, the candidates were evidently following very different strategies. Obama used every opportunity to attack as if he were the challenger. Romney stuck to patiently batting away Obama’s attacks while explaining his own positions clearly.

Schieffer asked Obama, “Do you have any regrets about how you handled Egypt?” Obama helped push the pro-American dictator out of power there after just eight days of protests in Tahrir Square. Egypt has since slid swiftly toward Islamist control. Obama voiced no regrets and sugar-coated what has become an extremely dangerous situation for the United States, for Israel, and for the entire region.

At about 28 minutes past the hour, Romney spoke of the principles that would guide him as president. America wants a peaceful world, he said, but our out-of-control debt has weakened us. The looming sequestration cuts would weaken us further. The key to projecting American strength, said Romney, begins by reigniting the American economy.  Romney also called out Obama’s decisions to alienate Israel and Poland at different times in his administration, and called out Obama’s silence when Iranians protested their government. That remains, along with Benghazi, one of the larger unanswered questions about President Obama: What drove him to blame a movie when terrorists attacked us, and what drove him to stand in silence while the mullahs in Iran slaughtered their own citizens? In response to Romney’s statement of principle, Obama lied that our alliances have never been stronger. That simply is not true, but lower information voters have probably not followed the ins and outs of, say, the U.S. relationships with Japan and Poland to know where Obama has gone out of his way to alienate longstanding American friends around the world.


From there, the foreign policy debate segued into a debate on economics and which candidate would be best for small business and which would be best for students. Obama opposes school choice and supports the teachers unions’ agenda. Obama tried interrupting when Romney ticked through statistics about Massachusetts’ student test scores, but Romney overrode.

At 45 in, Obama let off a howler that went unchallenged when he said our naval warfare capabilities should be driven by strategy. Obama abandoned the longstanding U.S. strategy of being able to fight and win two simultaneous wars. What strategy drove that decision? Obama made his statement at the end of a lengthy and demeaning attack (he compared Romney’s statement on the current size of the U.S. Navy to not needing horses and bayonets) on Romney’s explanation of why U.S. military strength is suffering under Obama, and Schieffer segued back to the Middle East.

Would either candidate consider an attack on Israel to be an attack on the United States? Obama answered by touting the sanctions against Iran which, so far, have not halted that country’s nuclear program. Obama’s actual record is one of doing little and making threats that no one takes seriously. Romney said that a nuclear-capable Iran is unacceptable, which puts his policy in line with that of Israel, and a step ahead of where Obama’s is. He currently allows a nuclear-capable Iran that is a step away from constructing a nuclear weapon. Romney also favors more “crippling sanctions” on Iran’s economy than Obama has imposed so far.

As the first hour came to a close, the candidates had spoken about the same number of minutes. If you knew nothing of Obama’s record, he seemed to project knowledge of the issues. The problem remains that he does have a record and it does not line up well with his debate rhetoric. Obama therefore took to the strategy of continuing to present himself as the outsider with answers, when he is the incumbent. On Iran, for instance, Obama touted the power of sanctions, and on the Middle East, he touted American leadership. But he showed no leadership when protesters rose up across Tehran, and sanctions have not halted Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons. Obama also spoke of “uniting the world” against Iran’s nuclear program, which is true as long as you don’t count Russia and China as part of the world.


At 57 past the hour, Romney called Obama out for visiting several MidEast states in his first year and criticizing past U.S. policies during his visits, while skipping any visit to Israel. The world, said Romney, noticed. Obama’s answer: When I was a candidate I visited troops and a holocaust museum. But why has he not visited Israel as president? Romney’s “apology tour” line clearly struck a nerve in Obama, who came off bristly and ill-at-ease in his nonresponsive defense. Obama never really explained why he went abroad in 2009 and used the grandeur of the presidency to apologize to countries with brutal human rights records and long histories of racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamism. Obama’s defense after Romney’s stinging attack was to attack back, an effort which mostly flatlined on the CNN meter. Obama only went positive when he brought up killing Osama bin Laden – the one and only trump card Obama still has in his hand. Interestingly, Obama allowed that killing bin Laden sent a message to the world, but never acknowledged that his apology tour also sent a message to the world. Obama never mentioned the U.S. military’s role in killing bin Laden: They did all the dangerous work.

Killing bin Laden did indeed send a message. But so did Islamists killing Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on 9-11-12. And Obama’s lack of response to that killing thus far sends its own message, too.

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.



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