As I was watching the battle proceed before my astonished eyes, with Mitt Romney touting so many of the President’s policies and actually confirming what so many of us know are half truths mixed with wishful thinking, if not outright lies, it occurred to me that someone back on the Romney bus decided not to win last night, but to shoot for a different target. The more the conversation unfolded, the more I understood how such a strategy could have been conceived.
It comes down to keeping your eyes on the prize. You’re the come-from-behind candidate, you’ve won a decisive opener and either won the second debate by points or lost by points, depending on who’s writing the review. You’re tied in the national polls, but still behind in most swing states. Now comes the third debate, and it’s about foreign policy, which means the president has all the best cards, because he understands foreign policy, because his record is mixed—not a complete disaster—and because he killed Bin Laden after you said it wasn’t worth the effort (it really wasn’t, but who’s listening).
The only way to win this debate would have been by attacking the president brutally, confronting him on every fact, cutting into every statement he makes, causing him to lose his footing and to look like a fool. It could be done, and I’m sure many of you watching at home were heckling the living daylights out of Romney for not grabbing all those golden opportunities – but I think he was smart not to. I think the guys on the bus were right. Because Romney could easily have come across as a mean spirited Nixon-like figure, beating on the poor president.
By staying away from the rough and tumble of the first debate, Candidate Romney reached a status equal to that of the man next to him on the split-screens: they both looked ready for office. And that was huge.
Remember, both candidates were really playing for the relatively narrow sliver of independents in swing states. Romney is pushing hard there, gaining on Obama in Pennsylvania, which used to be considered a sure Democratic state only in August and even September. He is ahead in Florida, but he’s still behind in Ohio. Romney has to take Ohio – and he won’t take it by winning on points in a foreign policy debate. He can win Ohio by looking so presidential, you could imagine him on a U.S. postage stamp.
That’s what the guys on the bus told their boss to go for tonight, and, with some hesitation, he followed their orders. It makes no difference now whether or not the pundits will say (as they have done already) that this was a win for Obama. Because there’s one thing Obama couldn’t deny his opponent tonight – respectability. No matter how Obama tried, he couldn’t push Romney so far out to the right he would lose his appeal to the independents.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News started with Libya, and Romney described the troubles associated with the Arab spring. We’ll have to develop a new, comprehensive strategy to combat the negative changes in the Middle East, he suggested.
You would have expected him to start right off the bat with a tirade about how both the president and Ms. Crowley have lied in the last debate about the spirit of what Obama had said regarding Benghazi. But, in retrospect, Romney’s taking the high road was a good strategic step.
Obama recounted his record as president, keeping Americans safe, decimating Al Qaeda, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He compared the liberation of Libya without boots on the ground to the costly other two wars, saying Libyans now support America. He accused Romney’s strategy of being “all over the map.”
Romney attacked some of Obama’s delusions, but never even got close to a body blow.
Schieffer asked Obama about Syria. Can we influence events there?
Obama mentioned that the U.S. has organized the international community in saying Assad has to go. The U.S. has mobilized sanctions, isolated the government, mobilized humanitarian aid and supported the moderate forces within Syria.
Seriously? We are supporting the Syrian moderates? Those moderates who are taking out whole city blocks with their car bombs? Is the president actually suggesting there are good guys and bad guys in Syria?
Then Obama said that, ultimately, Syria will have to determine its own future. The U.S. is cooperating with Israel and Turkey, its two friends who are next door to Syria. And he opposed giving heavy weapons to the opposition, as he claimed Romney had suggested.