Thoughts On The Final Debate

Overall: Romney won, again. And unlike the second debate, when the conventional wisdom seemed to be somehow that Obama won (the polls certainly didn’t respond accordingly), there really isn’t a major question about the one tonight.

Romney won on a number of points, but what he really won on was demeanor. Because Obama came off as petty, petulant and unpresidential. He argued small things, he was ungenerous, he was obviously attempting to “score points” rather than communicate with the American people. And it showed. Romney, on the other hand, was clearly focused on presenting the country with somebody who looked like he could lead and somebody who would bring reason and judgement to the job.

Romney’s strategy clearly came from the position of strength. Romney’s camp clearly sees themselves as ahead, with momentum. As such, Romney went into this debate with a plan to stay as above the fray as possible and to take no chances. That was clear when, at the very beginning of the debate, Romney opted not to indict Obama’s Benghazi performance on a point-by-point basis as so many of us wanted him to.

Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed by that. The Obama administration’s conduct on Libya has been impeachable – yes, I’m using that word – from the start all the way to the present, and it’s long past time someone burned him to the ground. Romney is certainly well-spoken enough and capable enough to take the president apart on the issue.

Romney could have taken Obama down on Libya in the same way he’s taken him down on his economic record. He could have pointed out that while Qaddafi was a low-life and a tyrant he was also cooperating with America against Al Qaeda (a fact of no small consequence given recent events), that Obama launched a war against him without consulting with Congress as is required by the War Powers Act, that attacking a foreign government without provocation or a discernible national security interest in doing so makes it highly unlikely for us to ever turn an enemy regime into a friend (or at least someone we can have normal relations with) again, that after we removed Qaddafi in favor of a chaotic country controlled, at least in part, by the local Al Qaeda affiliate Obama maintained a consulate in Benghazi without the necessary security DESPITE the diplomatic mission there screaming about the danger from said Al Qaeda affiliate, that while the Benghazi attack was going on Obama had the means to put an end to it and thus save the lives of Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods and that in the aftermath of that attack Obama has engaged in the worst kind of mendacity and tail-covering possible in order to shovel dirt on the most egregious American governmental scandal in four decades if not more.

He could have done all that. He chose not to.

The guess here is Romney’s camp has figured Obama will burn on Benghazi anyway, and after the way Candy Crowley interfered on Obama’s behalf in the second debate when Benghazi came up they must have decided that to press that case would open them up to (1) charges he’s politicizing the issue, particularly given that Obama’s surrogates have beclowned themselves trying to make that case already and to go there with too much vigor might ratify what Axelrod and LaBolt and Cutter have been saying, and (2) an “in the weeds” debate over things like who knew what when and what’s being done now, which Romney doesn’t want because he doesn’t have access to the same information Obama does.

They decided to play it safe and, instead of ripping Obama apart on Libya, to talk about the big picture. And as such, Romney couched his statements in the spirit of saying that Obama has shown the world an irresolute, weak and unserious posture. He presented himself as a calm, confident, reasonable and presidential figure.

Something else Romney did which might have been off-putting to his base but clearly an execution of his strategy was when he repeatedly said he agreed with Obama. That certainly drove the president batty, because Obama was under orders from his gurus to exploit every difference between the two as an example of Romney being clueless on foreign policy. And it also seemed to work, because Obama at one point said that Romney was wrong every time he expressed an opinion on foreign policy. That was both petty – take away the 2008 election and it’s obvious Romney is a far more accomplished individual than Obama is; to say he’s wrong on every issue comes off as churlish – and hard to defend when Romney was praising the president in about half the issues in the debate.

And it was conspicuous that Obama showed Romney no such grace. While Romney made a practice, when an issue arose in which he had no substantive disagreement, of simply saying he had no quarrel with the president, Obama on the other hand used those opportunities to throw out the most petty personal attacks possible. The most prominent example of this was on the question of economic sanctions with Iran. Romney said he would have perhaps pushed for them sooner and tightened what’s in place now, but the basic framework of the sanctions is the right policy; Obama countered by bringing up some Chinese company Romney invested in which does business in Iran. One was discussing the basic direction of American strategy, the other was trying to score a petty partisan point.

Obama’s grasping led to several major blunders which will damage him in the after-action review.

The worst of these came amid an exchange about the military budget. Romney decried the loss of a trillion dollars to that budget and the real consequences of it, specifically stating that the navy is down to a number of ships less than what we had in 1917. Obama’s response was sarcastic, unpresidential and disastrously wrong; in attempting to say we don’t need the same number of ships we had back then – which is a dubious proposition and one which is unlikely to play well in states he needs in two weeks – he equated navy ships to horses and bayonets.

The Marines still use bayonets (and the military still has 120,000 horses as well, and uses them in Afghanistan), so by making that statement Obama has now shown himself to be not only a know-it-all but a commander-in-chief who doesn’t even understand his own troops. And in doing that he has alienated three military-heavy swing states in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia – all of which he’s poised to lose anyway. He needed to reverse that momentum; now he’s sealed it.

Obama also tried to be funny in talking about aircraft carriers and how planes landed on them, but that fell flat and looked petty. He also called submarines ships, which was an ignorant thing to say – ships don’t go under water on purpose. A submarine is a boat, not a ship. To make such an elementary mistake after four years in office is disastrous.

Obama also flat-out stated there will be no sequestration, a statement his campaign had to walk back in the spin room. When your camp has to walk back something you said, it’s not good.

Another major blunder, if it’s picked up in the media, was when Obama – in attempting to make the rather uncharitable point that every opinion Romney has is wrong and particularly on having called Russia the top foreign policy threat – accused Romney of wanting to institute the foreign policy of the 1980’s, the social policy of the 1950’s and the economic policy of the 1920’s. The fact is that the 1980’s saw America stare down the greatest threat to global freedom in the history of the world and utterly defeat it without firing a shot, the 1950’s saw a decade of slow, but steady, progress on civil rights along with a flowering of our national culture – Hollywood, rock and roll, the birth of television as a mass media, racial integration of professional sports and the rise of pro football, etc. – and the 1920’s were the greatest decade of economic progress in American history, with the market introduction of more transformative technologies than perhaps any other period in world history and the greatest expansion of the middle class ever. A president who can do in those three areas what Coolidge, Eisenhower and Reagan did would have to be considered the greatest president in American history.

And Obama used that line in an attempt to trash Romney. Books have been written about the mindset which would produce such an out-of-touch and ridiculous statement.

Romney brushed Obama’s criticism on Russia aside by saying that what he said about Russia was they are a geopolitical foe but Iran is the leading national security threat, and then he made reference to Obama’s prospective post-election “flexibility,” which was a brilliant response and made short work of the president. That was almost unfortunate, because the fact he did so obfuscated the massive 1920’s-1950’s-1980’s blunder in the post-debate analysis.

Obama also stumbled badly when he challenged Romney on his statement about failing to get a status-of-forces agreement in Iraq. It was a mistake for him to go there in the first place; Obama put forth a declaration that Romney wants to still have troops in Iraq, which isn’t established, and Romney responded by noting that Obama sent Joe Biden to negotiate an arrangement to do just that but failed to achieve that end.

Romney is factually correct, and what Obama was doing there was to try to paint him as a warmonger along the lines of George W. Bush. He failed in that attempt, and soon after that exchange Romney embarked on a long discussion of how America’s role in the world is to produce peace, not fight wars. To a persuadable voter, Romney didn’t come off as the bloodthirsty militarist Obama wanted to present him as.

And Obama’s attempt at the end, when the debate veered away from foreign policy and into economics, to paint Romney as supporting the dissolution of the auto industry was also a failure. He was referencing a New York Times op-ed of Nov. 18, 2008 written by Romney entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” – an unfortunate headline supplied by that paper’s editors and NOT Romney – but as Romney said a reading of that editorial shows no such thing…

The American auto industry is vital to our national interest as an employer and as a hub for manufacturing. A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs. It would permit the companies to shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs. The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.

In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.

Doesn’t sound like a write-off of Detroit, does it? Romney won that point on the facts as well.

Romney and Obama played relatively even on counterpunches, but Romney’s counterpunches were more strategic – he redirected an Obama statement about the importance of government-sponsored research into an indictment of Obama’s funding of Solyndra and other boondoogles, he made the point that “we don’t dictate to other countries, we liberate them from dictators” and he had maybe the line of the night when he said “Attacking me is not talking about an agenda.” When Romney went small on Obama – which was rare, because he carried himself as you might expect an incumbent with a big lead to, while Obama was the grasping challenger trying to land the big punch – he was always able to relate his shots to (1) Obama’s failed record, and (2) a vision for the future. Obama’s shots had no such tie-ins.

In all, a very good night for Romney. And with the momentum heavily in his favor and an inability for Obama to adequately respond to the drubbing Romney handed to him in the first debate, at this point it appears very likely this election will fall to the Republican.

It’s still too early to declare the president a dead duck. But his lights are definitely dimming. To win he’ll have to find a knockout punch somewhere without a suitable venue for doing so – and he’ll have to do it within the context of a now-failed campaign strategy based on winning news cycles one at a time while attempting to demonize a decent, accomplished, classy and moderate (in demeanor) man as some sort of rapacious, uncaring robber baron.

With the failure to score in any substantial manner tonight, Obama is out of bullets. He now must rely on desperate measures to win. Look for a drone strike on jihadists in Benghazi. Or Gloria Allred-sponsored October surprises. Or fresh disclosures of Swiss bank accounts. Or whatever. Obama has lost, and now he needs some sort of deus ex machina event to turn things around.

Does such an event exist? Anything is possible. But it’s highly unlikely. On the merits, this thing is all but over; it’s the final score which has yet to be decided, but the outcome appears clear.

Mitt Romney will be the next president of the United States of America.

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