Mitt Romney’s just not that into foreign policy.
The hapless Republican nominee for president spent most of the only foreign-policy debate of the 2012 fall campaign mumbling lines like:
“I want to underscore the—the same point the president made…”
“That was something I concurred with…”
“I supported his—his action there…”
“I don’t blame the administration…”
“…do as the president has done…”
“… and feel the president was right…”
“I congratulate him for what he has done.”
On drones, on Syria, even on Libya, Romney agreed with the president. Romney even appeared to shift his stance on the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, steering toward a position that suddenly parallels the administration plan for a 2014 exit strategy. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, described Romney as an “inexperienced” “Etch-A-Sketch candidate” who is not ready to be president.
Brent Bozell, an iconic and well-regarded conservative who serves as president of the Media Research Center, messaged forty-five minutes into the debate: “Something is wrong with Romney tonight. He’s refusing to challenge Obama’s failed policies. He’s sounding LIKE Obama. This is terrible.”
Undecided voters surveyed by CBS agreed, indicating in a snap poll that Obama had won the commander-in-chief test by a staggering 53-23 margin. That was a wider margin than Romney got after the first debate that was broadly seen as his big win.
All of this was good news for Obama, if not necessarily for the national discourse. In too many senses, Monday night’s debate was a confirmation of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that so frustrates Americans who want a broader debate on fundamental questions of war and peace, globalization and human rights. And it was a reminder that alternative candidates, such as Green party presidential nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson, should have been included in these debates.
But there were only two candidates on stage. And one of them, the guy who was supposed to be making a case for removing the incumbent, kept echoing the president.
Again and again, Romney agreed with Obama’s approaches to international issues. Sometimes, he did so explicitly. Sometimes, he simply restated Obama administration policies as if he had developed them himself.
In case anyone missed the point, the president was at the ready with lines like: “I’m glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking” and “I’m pleased that you are now endorsing our policy…”
But Obama was not satisfied to rest on the laurels from Romney.
The Democratic president knew he needed as strong showing in the last of a cycle of debates that began with an Obama performance so weak that it renewed Romney’s run. And Obama got it.
Midway through the debate, Romney repeated the right-wing talk radio fantasy that Obama began his presidency with “an apology tour” of the Middle East. He griped that the president “skipped Israel” on his 2009 trip to the region.
Obama was so ready for that one:
When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem—the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself [about] the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.
Romney did not respond because, of course, Obama was right.
Romney did use his trip last summer to Israel as a vehicle for fundraising, organizing money-raising events and flying in wealthy donors from the United States.
It was one of several points throughout the evening where a pointed one-liner from the president shut down a Romney line of attack.
Romney ripped Obama on the size of the US Navy, making comparisons with the 1916 fleet size.
Obama responded: “You mention the Navy, and the fact that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. It’s not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s ‘What are our priorities?’ ”
Romney, so famous for demanding more time to respond, just let that one go, and made no more mention of the Navy.
But the line that may resonate the longest from an otherwise uninspired debate came when the two men sparred over how to “get tough” with China when it comes to trade policy, currency manipulation and offshoring concerns.
Obama was again prepared for Romney.
The Republican went through his litany of complaints about how the president was not doing enough to address the trade deficit and other issues with China.
Then, with just the slightest grin, Obama said:
Governor Romney’s right. You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas, because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas. And, you know, that’s your right. I mean, that’s how our free market works.
But I’ve made a different bet on American workers. You know, if we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we’d be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China. If we take your advice with respect to how we change our tax codes so that companies that are in profits overseas don’t pay US taxes compared to companies here that are paying taxes, now, that’s estimated to create 800,000 jobs. The problem is they won’t be here; they’ll be in places like China.
In a presidential race that is likely to be decided in manufacturing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, where too many jobs have been offshored to China, that’s what voters want to hear in a presidential debate. And Obama was saying it.