Debate Night in America — Round 3

By Michael Shields and Chris Thompson

The final of three 2012 general election presidential debates occurred Monday evening. Across the Margin’s Chris Thompson and Michael Shields assess its dramatic effect.

“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” — Socrates

And it comes down to this, the final debate.

With only minor exceptions of easily disregarded extremist viewpoints, it appears as if both Democrats and Republicans can agree on one idea and that is this: Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate and President Obama claimed victory in the second. Thus, Monday night’s event was seen as crucial to both parties, as we find the candidates fighting tooth and nail over the tiny slice of voters who are still undecided going into the last two weeks before the presidential election.

The main push of Monday night’s debate was foreign policy and the stakes were high, as going into this final debate the country appears evenly divided between the two candidates1. With scant weeks remaining before Election Day, the rhetoric in both camps has reached a crescendo and the circling of the political wagons for the final push to the presidency has begun. The fact that swing voters rarely vote based on their foreign policy views meant that any attempts to obtain the allegiance of those still inexplicably undecided had to be Herculean in nature.

In sharp contrast to last week’s lively and energetic town hall-style debate, last nights event was more subdued and less contentious. Romney and Obama sat in close proximity, shoulder to shoulder with veteran reporter and seasoned moderator Bob Schieffer, who before the debate stated his view on the role of these events in the election process:

“People are watching [the debates] to judge character. I don’t think it matters what the questions are about — what matters is how candidates answer. Do they seem in control? … I’m just there to help the viewers get a better understanding of who these people are.”

Well said Mr. Schieffer. As we’ve mentioned before, these debates are nothing more than high stakes television shows. They carry a lot of weight–to say the least–but are lacking in value, offer no real content and rarely does a new policy emerge. Mr. Schieffer so thoughtfully comprehends the fact that all we are left with–once we weed through all the pomposity, half-truths, and misinformation–is the judging of the candidate’s character. The questions are of little importance. All that truly matters is that one candidate is able to convince us more than the other that he is competent….and that he is prepared to take the helm of our country.

Mr. Schieffer appropriately set the tone for the evening by referencing the Cuban Missile Crisis on its 50th Anniversary and reminding the candidates that the president will always face daunting challenges and needs to stay, above all else, in control2.

From the outset of the last nights debate it was apparent that President Obama intended to demonstrate to the American people that he had a firm understanding and command of the “control” that Mr. Schieffer so thoughtfully speaks of. Obama was feisty. He was combative and he was sure, exhibiting a confidence amassed during four years of hands on presidential experience. He knew he had the advantage and seized the opportunity to display not only his depth of knowledge regarding international relations, but also to shine a light on Mitt Romney’s lack of experience and grasp of foreign affairs3. The President continuously led off his responses with a clever tag-line, custom prepared for this evening and designed to tarnish Mitt’s leadership abilities, suggesting that Romney “is all over the map.”  We were hardly 15 minutes into the debate when Obama justly accused Mitt of wanting to “import the foreign policies of the 1980s4, the social policies of the 50s, and the economic policies of the 1920’s.” Damn.

Romney on the other hand, appeared to be playing it safe, as if trying to suggest that he was thoughtful5. Instead this passive position, which saw him agreeing with President Obama more often then not, had the opposite effect, making him appear somehwhat weak. The Mitt Romney that showed up for the debate last night was different from the one we saw in the previous two encounters. He seemed a lot more nervous and twitchy, reminiscent of a shifty 1960’s Dick Nixon and he made less sense than George W. Bush did in 2000. On the other hand, he was fairly agreeable all evening, smiling often, backing many of Obama’s policies and was well-armed with a plethora of talking points6 but he brought little else. He appeared a fish out of water at times and captured the true low-point of this debate trilogy by answering one of Mr. Schieffer’s questions by referring him to the Romney/Ryan campaign website7.

Listening to Romney talk is enthralling. How someone can be simultaneously confusing and cringe inducing, with a healthy dose of bizarre mixed in absolutely amazes us. Take for instance his beauty of an opener, just after Mr. Schieffer tossed the first question of the night Romney’s way:

“We were together at a humorous event a little earlier, and it’s nice to maybe funny this time, not on purpose. We’ll see what happens.”

Well put Governor. Very eloquent. Romney never seemed to have a chance. Things just went downhill from the beginning and it became abundantly clear that his lack of foreign policy experience was going to follow him throughout the night. When Obama attacked Romney on several fronts regarding his sketchy grasp of international strategy Romney responded by getting real sweaty.  A retreat to his fall back position, his baby: Mitt Romney’s Five Point Plan for America, was not far behind. Mitt’s cautious approach to the debate, passive nature and nervousness under fire clearly highlighted his deficiencies in foreign policy.

On the other hand, we would like to give some points and well deserved credit to Mitt Romney for not harping on the Benghazi tragedy in this debate, as many believed he would.  Blatantly exploiting this calamity and using it as an example to illustrate Obama’s incompetence would not have been very presidential. Especially when the situation is as complex as the attack on our diplomatic mission in Libya is turning out to be. All Americans know that this lapse in security demands intense scrutiny, with a hope for future recommendations being made to prevent its recurrence. What we didn’t need was Romney using the death of a distinguished member of our foreign service for political advancement.

Obama continually shot straight from the hip and hardly missed his target. He came off condescending at times and spoke to Mitt like a child who arrived too late to class and forgot to do his homework, but the effect was powerful.  The “older dad admonishing the younger child” moment of the evening occurred when Mitt Romney mentioned that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Obama, seizing an opportunity to let Mitt in on the nature of warfare in the 21st century, and the need for a leaner, smarter military quipped: “Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets too as the nature of the military has changed.” He didn’t stop there, “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them” he continued–now talking down to his opponent–“We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” He concluded this petulant scolding by declaring that natural security is not a game of Battleship were you simply count ships. We half expected Obama to send Mitt to his room after this conversation.  Schooled.

As condescending as the President came off as at times last evening, Mitt’s unwavering mocking of Obama’s “apology tour” certainly equaled or trumped the level of belittlement he received.  What Mitt is referring to specifically is a period from the beginning of President Obama’s term in 2009, where he gave a series of speeches in the Middle East aimed at creating stronger ties with foreign countries8. In these speeches Obama came clean about flaws in past US policy as part of a larger narrative aimed at repairing ties and building friendships with other nations. He did not apologize, as Romney implied, rather he was honest (to a degree) about how previous administrations have acted. He spoke as a true representative of our country, as one who came not only to speak, but also to listen. We must admit that this period of time was the proudest we have ever been of a modern president in office. We had yet to witness anything like it; a president who wanted to speak about America’s role as part of a much larger world rather than presenting himself as the dictator of it. It was the beginning of a much larger discussion, of a much larger worldview where we are all in this together. It was in direct contrast to the antiquated policy of forcing our ideology onto other peoples that we have grown up with. And it appeared to be the start of something special, something unique and sacred, but all it appeared to Mitt Romney to be was nothing more than apologetic groveling. And that’s a distinction that counts.

Monday night had both candidates looking outward upon a world on fire. Civil war in Syria–with a Pro-Assad military actively slaughtering its civilians9; uncertainty in a newly democratic Egypt; terrorism and diplomatic security failings in Libya; Iran, a pro-nuclear nation and state sponsor of terrorism incessantly rattling its war-sabre; and Israel–lonely and encircled Israel–attempting to safeguard its people from a rapidly destabilizing region.10 Both candidates had their opinions on how to tackle this hornets nest of foreign diplomacy and the phrase that emerged from the chatter was a whopper: crippling sanctions. Both Romney and Obama latched onto this phrase with teenage vigor, like they were leading their high school football teams pep rally: “What do we want? Crippling Sanctions! When do we want them? Now!”

Romney, with his sophomoric attempts to impress the viewing public by making up facts on the fly, took the crippling sanctions phrase and ran with it. He went as far as to suggest that in addition to sanctions, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–Iran’s perma-gray suit wearing, unsympathetic to human rights leaning president–could be indited for war crimes. Huh?11 Romney also displayed his talent for Sarah Palin-style Middle Eastern geography by stating that Syria is Iran’s only route to the sea. The fact that Iran doesn’t border Syria12 didn’t stop Mitten’s from charging forward with even more Romneyism’s. Unfortunately for him, they were easily seen for what they truly were, an attempt to assure elderly Jewish voters13 that he had Israels best interests at heart. Obama’s use of the crippling sanctions phrase was equally robust, but where Romney fell short on specifics, a basic grasp of geography and an understanding of what exactly the term crippling sanctions meant, the President excelled. His firm understanding of how to approach the powder keg that is the Middle East, through the building of strong coalitions of nations equally committed to lessening the unrest in these regions, demonstrated his influence on the world stage. The fact that he had, literally, the nations and the numbers behind him to support his answers only strengthened Obama’s position as a viable presidential candidate. Obama’s record on foreign policy is solid.

The fact of the matter is Mitt Romney and his team are most likely very happy today. They truly just wanted to get through this final debate without any major gaffes. His team probably considers Monday night a victory of sorts as the goal was to just not make any costly mistakes. When outmatched the best tactic is to take the blows and survive to the next round. Unfortunately, while doing so Romney managed to commit those very blunders he was trying to avoid by changing many of his stances (2 weeks prior to the election mind you) to appear as a more moderate Republican14. This approach may be enough for Mitt, his team, and the few undecided voters scattered throughout the country…but the rest of us, certain of our convictions and long in memory, certainly hope that if elected Romney opens his binders full of policy and studies them with renewed vigor.

In the end this really wasn’t a debate. It was more like a discussion with all the agreeing that was going on between the two candidates15. Obama said the surge in Afghanistan worked. Romney said the surge in Afghanistan worked. Obama said it was right to violate Pakistan sovereignty and assassinate bin Laden. Romney said it was right to do so. And so on and so on. We learned little, if anything new. Not one idea was brought to the table that was novel or unexpected. This debate, as is frequently the case with a conversation about foreign policy didn’t even seem fair to the challenging candidate.  Sadly, we heard not a word about climate change (a crucial global issue) and barely anything concerning the plight of women throughout the world. One unsettling fact  we did hear though, which has broad reaching implications for our futures both at home and abroad, is that both men share an affinity for drone attacks.  We already knew where these two men stood regarding this topic, but to hear it spoke of so callously simply reinforced how serious of an issue this may become.

So with the winding down of two wars in the Middle East, an economy struggling to shrug off the effects of the worst recession in history, and a national debt spiraling hopelessly out of control, we find ourselves on the cusp of Election Day. To date, after countless words and arguments have been made on both sides concerning who looks more in command, who looks like they have a firmer grasp of the situations affecting the country, who looks more confident and who looks more credible, the person who has made the most sense across both campaigns is former President Bill Clinton. Bubba has made the most reasonable and pragmatic arguments, recently boiling the entire campaign cycle down to a simplistic ideology that we believe holds water.  Clinton said, “Why would you junk a plan that is working for one we know doesn’t?” Makes sense to us.

  1. Is it us or do these ever confusing poll numbers appear to be far too convenient, uniquely benefiting the media? The race squaring up at 47% each going into the last two weeks of the campaign conveniently plays into the networks insatiable appetite for ratings above all else. []
  2. Fitting, as Mitt Romney has stated that Russia remains our number one adversary []
  3. The Obama one-two punch []
  4. “The 1980s are calling and they want their foreign policy back.” []
  5. Possibly a thinly-veiled attempt to appeal to women voters? He does after all, have to convince women that he isn’t going to just bomb everything. Especially since he has the legacy of a previous pro-war Republican behind him []
  6. “We can’t kill our way out of this mess”, “Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges of the Middle East”, etc…. []
  7. Like the president, we’ve all been to Mitt’s website and “it still doesn’t add up.” []
  8. Basically cleaning up George W. Bush’s mess, letting the world know we are not all domineering assholes. []
  9. 33,000 dead []
  10. A full plate to say the least and a difficult road to walk for even the most seasoned diplomat. []
  11. We’re pretty sure angrily denying the existence of the holocaust from the pulpit of the United Nations hardly qualifies as a war crime. []
  12. It borders Iraq, and Turkey which themselves border Syria []
  13. Especially those who have retired to that critical election swing state, Florida []
  14. It is telling that the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s largest newspaper, has recently endorsed Obama over the first ever Mormon candidate for president, Mitt Romney, stating, “”Who is this guy, really, and what in the world does he truly believe? The evidence suggests no clear answer, or at least one that would survive Romney’s next speech or sound bite. Politicians routinely tailor their words to suit an audience. Romney, though, is shameless, lavishing vastly diverse audiences with words, any words, they would trade their votes to hear.” []
  15. We can’t help but hoping that one day it will not be just two candidates debating, just two choices – as the two party system we are shackled with is limiting []

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