By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
October 23, 2012: There are now less than two weeks before Election Day. Polling data released within the last 24 hours by NBC News and CNN now shows that Americans are divided so evenly on their choice of president that it is a virtual tie. Last night’s debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney did little to change that dynamic, though the partisans on both sides may dispute that.
Though there has been no such thing as a “throwaway” election in contemporary times, even those presidential contests in which the outcome seemed certain by the time the summer conventions reached their conclusions (Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater; Richard Nixon versus George McGovern; Ronald Reagan versus Walter Mondale), we have nevertheless become numb to the sound of reporters and television analysts telling us that “this election is one of the most important and dramatic in recent times.”
We heard it in the three-way race between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. We heard it repeatedly in 1996 when Bob Dole challenged President Clinton. We heard it again as the central theme by both the Gore and Bush camps in the election of 2000. By the time 2004 arrived and the battle was between George W. Bush and John Kerry, one could hear those words hundreds of times every day, and in 2008, in the epic multi-front fights between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and between Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and John McCain, it had become our national mantra.
But in fact, all presidential elections are important. Just as every congressional race, every Senate race, and every race for governor, mayor or councilman carry weight. This election may turn out to be truly important, and historic, despite candidates who seem more willing than ever to overtly dodge accountability and so obvious in their avoidance of the toughest questions.
Still, there are at times flashes of substance, and sometimes the surprises come in how many ways candidates agree, rather than disagree.
Last night’s debate from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida was the final venue in which the President and Romney will meet on the same stage. For ninety minutes, under the guidance of moderator Bob Scheiffer of CBS News, the candidates sparred intensely over issues of foreign policy, covering the Middle East—Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Israel, Iraq, Turkey—as well as Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the always hot-button topic of Iran. And as expected, this debate on foreign policy also wandered occasionally into the intersecting arenas of free markets and economic recovery, as well as education, deficit reduction and military spending.
On points, one would easily give the victory to Obama, who sounded and looked presidential and in command of the facts, frequently making the case that our the American military is stronger and that the world is safer and less threatening than it was four years ago—a war ended in Iraq, another winding down in Afghanistan, al Qaeda on the run, Osama bin Laden dead. Romney countered that the world has become decidedly less safe on Obama’s watch: the stubbornly militant rise of an Iran more determined than ever to become a nuclear power; the ascendancy of a Chinese superpower willing to violate copyright and patent agreements, not to mention hacking into the west’s most secure computer systems, military sites and financial institutions; and the continuing spread of al Qaeda and Taliban influence in Asia, Africa and the wider Middle East.
On style, and on substance, both candidates rose to the occasion, and—as in past debates—Romney managed to look and sound like a commander-in-chief. In that sense, the match-up was a draw, since surrogates and specialists for both sides have many reasons to claim victory. Many analysts inclined toward a pro-GOP tilt saw Romney as the winner simply for the fact that he went the 90 minute distance with Obama while at the same time not getting goaded into appearing to be the warmonger. Indeed, it could be easily argued that of the two men, Romney sounded like the peacemaker, frequently driving conversation toward the avoidance of war. Obama, by contrast, morphed from internationalist conciliator to pro-American, neocon hawk.
That Romney made such dramatic moves toward the center, and the fact that the President repeatedly burnished his military and commander-in-chief bona fides speaks volumes about the next thirteen days. Each candidate was seeking to reach outside of their traditional constituencies; each was trying to woo independent or undecided voters.
There were many areas of agreement: Israel, Iran, and Afghanistan. And there were areas of sharp disagreement, such as Russia, a subject which Romney used to his advantage to demonstrate that the president’s “flexibility” often serves to empower and facilitate dictators.
Obama and Romney also traded blows on their two most sensitive, unarmored areas.
The President took issue with Romney’s reference to the so-called “world apology tour,” the occasion when Obama traveled to several Arab countries offering conciliatory language, cultural outreach and olive branches—admitting that the U.S. had acted, in some cases, unilaterally, in its war on terror—and bypassing Israel on the same tour. Romney also cited Obama’s use of the phrase “creating daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. Israel’s enemies, Romney said, were paying close attention to the American shift in policy during this time and saw Obama’s words as weakness.
Obama called those concepts false, and said the “apology tour” chant by some on the right is “one of the biggest whoppers around.” Obama, dodging a direct explanation of whether he actually made an apology, said however that he never offered language that would weaken the U.S. relationship with Israel, nor did he says things to encourage misbehavior on the part of the nations of the Arab or Muslim world. Iran, explained the President, was already resurgent when he took office. The President then went on to highlight his visits to Israel as proof of American resolve and commitment to an important ally.
When Scheiffer sought to employ a hypothetical—a scenario in which the prime minister of Israel calls to inform the President that Israeli bombers are airborne and on their way toward military targets in Iran, Romney waved the speculative adventure aside, insisting that no such scenario would occur under his watch. As president, Romney said, there would not be a nuclear-capable Iran.
But during a discussion about U.S. economic power, Romney took sharp offense at the longstanding accusation that as a candidate he had once advocating letting the American auto industry fail. Romney battled back against this charge, saying that he had never made any such statement, and citing his op-ed piece in the New York Times (the original source of the controversy) and its key premise—that the major automakers should have gone through the managed bankruptcy process like other companies at the time, without the huge bailouts which were offered first by George W Bush and later by Obama. Romney said he disagreed with then-President Bush on the way in which government money was used as a direct bailout tool.
This provoked charges and counter-charges, and the argument devolved into a largely semantic exercise—much like many of the more famous exchanges from last week’s debate in Hempstead, New York.
The most noteworthy sound bite of the evening came up during a contentious argument over the cost of the U.S. military and Romney’s proposals to increase defense spending. When Romney cited the fact the Navy has fewer ships now than it did in 1916, Obama pounced—offering the sarcastic retort that we also have fewer bayonets and fewer horses than we did in 1916. “And we have these things that go under the water that are called submarines,” the President said. Afterwards, a flood of commentary suggested that both candidates may use the line to their distinct advantage—in Romney’s case as a blunt weapon to be deployed in ads in military swing states, such as Virginia, Florida and North Carolina.
When Scheiffer raised the specter of the current civil war in Syria, both Obama and Romney took non-hawkish approaches to the crisis. Alluding to the struggle by the rebels to overthrow the Assad regime and the violent actions of the pro-Assad Syrian military—especially against civilian targets—both Obama and Romney seemed in agreement that prudence and care would be the preferred course for the United States.
“What we’re seeing happening in Syria is heartbreaking,” Obama said, “but we have to recognize that getting involved militarily is a very serious step.”
On several key occasions in the debate, as expected, Romney turned the question of America’s role in the world into an economic concern. “We want a peaceful world,” Romney said, “but for there to be a peaceful world America needs to be strong.” Romney cited the enormous U.S. debt and American economic sluggishness as a primary foreign policy weakness.
Romney mentioned several times during the debate that by the President’s own admission the US. is at least nine million jobs short of where he had promised we would be by 2012.
But for many viewers there was no doubt frustration. Each time Romney pivoted the conversation toward the economy, the President sought to deflect the criticism and turned the sparring into a referendum on Romney’s past statements. Wherever there was agreement, even on basic principles, Obama would again use the opportunity to badger Romney for having said something contrary in the past. Romney, for his part, kept his specifics to a minimum, and dodged altogether the thorny matter of making the math work for both tax cuts and a reduced deficit.
Some analysts suggested that very little will be decided on Election Day based on foreign policy issues. Even the most prominent of the hot issues—Syria, Iran, China, a resurgent al Qaeda and Taliban across Africa—seem to take a back seat to the dominant concern of economic recovery. In this sense, last night’s debate did little to enhance the President’s status, even as the debate score- keepers declare him the winner on points. Conversely, Romney savors talk of jobs, for it is here where he scores best with those voters who call themselves undecided.
In the meantime, there are no more debates. The candidates will concentrate almost all of their firepower on seven states, among them Ohio and Florida. Having the potential to shape the outcome of this election, residents of the Sunshine State and the Buckeye State can expect to see a lot of both candidates over the next days.