Latest update: October 30th, 2012
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.
Romney said the killing of 30 thousand Syrians by their government is a humanitarian disaster. He added that the Syrian tragedy is also an opportunity, because Syria is a major ally of Iran. We shouldn’t send the military there, but should identify responsible parties within Syria, help them organize as a council to eventually replace the government, and make sure they are armed and able to defend themselves. But make sure those arms won’t end up in the wrong hands.
So, essentially, Romney did not challenge the president’s narrative on Syria, the delusional notion that there are forces of light vs. forces of darkness fighting each other over there, and that America is siding with the nice ones. He either does not know the reality, which I doubt, or didn’t care, because, let’s face it, presidents come and go and U.S. foreign policy endures unchanged.
Romney allowed Obama to claim that the U.S. is playing a leadership role in supporting the opposition to Assad (who are really scary and brutal Sunni warriors that would murder as many Alawite, Druze, and Shiite civilians if they could), and that in Syria we’re following the Libyan model.
Then Obama turned on Romney, trying to egg him on into a fight for having said that to take out Ghadafi was mission creep. Obama positioned himself to the right of Romney on this one, coming across a lot more blood thirsty than his Republican opponent – and Romney let him.
Romney even hit Obama with a great line, after he had brought up Osama Bin Laden’s assassination once too often: “You can’t kill your way out of every situation.”
Frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot of daylight between the two on Iran, either. Romney made a few points on American reluctance to support the demonstrators in Iran two years ago, but basically supported the idea of bombing Iran’s nukes only as a last resort. The only criticism he had about the sanctions was that they need to be tighter.
Most readers of this website could go a few rounds against the president and beat him on the Iranian nukes issue, but Romney conceded.
Romney wasn’t more aggressive on Egypt, either, essentially agreeing with the president’s stated policy of supporting democracy in the Middle East, just making sure they don’t kill their Christians or honor-murder their women.
Then Romney said something so outrageously foolish, I was wondering if he’d been studying the Democrats’ party platform instead of his own party’s. He said: “I believe America has to defend freedom and defend human rights, dignity, free enterprise, elections – because when people have elections they tend to vote for peace.”
On what planet? In what Middle East? From Turkey to the Palestinian Authority, to Jordan to Egypt to Tunisia, every time the Arab masses have been given an open and honest chance to vote in free elections, they voted for the most medieval, most extremist Islamist party.
With that statement and the one about Israelis and Palestinians going back to the negotiations table, Romney absolutely re-captured the center, and sounded sounding more Democrat than Obama.
Romney even let Obama extract himself from the accusation–absolutely correct and righteous–that he signaled his distance from Israel when he toured the Middle East and didn’t stop to visit in the Holy Land. Obama said he had been to Israel as a candidate, visited Yad VaShem and even met with families under rocket fire in Sderot. I know it’s hard to think on your feet on those occasions, but the least Mitt could have done was that there’s a gigantanormous difference between hopping in as a candidate and actually avoiding the old place like the plague while visiting everyone else in the neighborhood. Come on…
I actually think the debate last night could have been the push Romney needed over the hurdle of having to stand on an equal footing with an incumbent president. I’ll be proven wrong or right in the next couple of days, as the only polls that count—those in the swing states—will start reflecting last night’s bout.
Of one thing I’m sure, regarding U.S. policy towards Israel, should Romney win, I doubt anyone would notice a hair of a difference.
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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