“The question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships,” President Obama said in the third Presidential debate. It is a little disappointing that he didn’t go on to construct an alternative metaphor involving Stratego. But he didn’t need to. If we’re counting debate victories, Obama got another one Monday night, making it two out of three. He won after deploying horses and bayonets to defend himself against Romney’s charge that “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917”—a fake fact relying on the raw number of boats of every shape and description the Navy has, which Romney has used before and that, this time, got the response it deserved. “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama said.
You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
It is a measure of Obama’s success here that Romney supporters came out to object that the Marines do, indeed, still use bayonets, and Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, tweeted that the line was somehow “an insult to every sailor who has put his or her life on the line for our country.” It is not; nor was Obama disparaging Ann Romney and her horse Rafalca by suggesting that the way we measure cavalry forces has changed. If there’s an insult here, it lies in Romney’s apparent assumption that voters are incapable of grasping that distinction. That he even used this line was either an act of clumsiness or a cynical assessment of political discourse, since it has already been widely discredited by fact-checkers. Glenn Kessler, of the Washington Post, called it “nonsense,” and pointed out that even on Romney’s absurd terms it is wrong, since there were fewer ships in George W. Bush’s Navy than in Obama’s. Did Romney suppose that Obama might point that out? Worse, did he not care?
Speaking of Rafalca—who was a dressage competitor in London this summer—the Olympic Games were one of the few international organizations mentioned in a debate that was supposedly about foreign policy. The same could be said for much of the world, with whole continents either ignored or rattled off in name-dropping sequences. (Romney: “Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by Al Qaeda-type individuals.”) Greece was presented as a parable of financial ruin, the place where roads of debt led—not as a crisis that a President might help our allies confront. In talking about America’s role in the world, Romney managed to offer that “the teachers’ union’s going to have to go behind.” (“I think we all love teachers,” Bob Schieffer said, by way of summing up the evening.) Obama, too, took every opportunity to talk about the auto bailout rather than, say, global warming.
In none of those areas did Romney manage to win—not on China, not on Iran, where he also got a little lost while talking about ships—not even on teachers. Obama, in contrast, was poundingly solid. He talked about a woman who’d lost her father on 9/11, who told him, “Finally getting bin Laden, that brought some closure to me.” The general assessment was that Romney agreed with the President, more than his base might have liked. Libya was the first question; Romney, instead of attacking the Administration on its response in Benghazi, spoke generally about the region. He also thought that American troops should be out of Afghanistan by 2014. Asked about the drone war, he said, “I support that entirely.” (Neither talked about Guantànamo, which is, in every sense, a shame.)
But it’s not quite right to say that Romney mimicked Obama. He didn’t mirror the President’s program so much as counter it with something blank and smudgy, shoved at the world with contempt. He was unapologetic about pushing the idea of “what I have called an apology tour”—another false notion. Romney also dismissed the very idea that Benjamin Netanyahu might ever take military action without having a serious talk with him first—a comment that is both shallow and dangerously incautious. The challenge with Iran, Romney said, was that its leaders looked at Obama and “saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” The quality of that strength was vague, though. It seemed to involve looking good and buying ships.
Boat confusion is an old and telling political problem. As it happens, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, the period Romney uses as a benchmark for the service’s present, was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was young and ambitious and could still walk on his own; he wouldn’t be struck with polio for another four years. Long afterward, he told a story of the day in 1914 when William Jennings Bryan, who was serving as Secretary of State—his “Cross of Gold” speech behind him—ran into his office and yelled, “I’ve got to have a battleship. White people are being killed in Haiti, and I must send a battleship there within twenty-four hours.” According to Jean Edward Smith, in his biography, “FDR”:
Roosevelt told Bryan it would be impossible. “Our battleships are in Naragansett Bay and I could not get one to Haiti in less than four days steaming at full speed. But I have a gunboat somewhere in the vicinity of Guantanamo and I can get her to Haiti in eight hours if you want me to.”
“That is all I wanted,” said Bryan. The secretary of state turned to leave and then stopped. “Roosevelt,” he said, “when I talk about battleships, don’t think I mean anything technical. All I meant was that I wanted something that would float and had guns on it.”
When Romney talks about battleships, or about “crippling sanctions”—or letting Detroit go bankrupt, or the numbers in his tax plan—does he mean anything technical? Does Romney even have, as Bryan at least did, have a rough practical sense of what he might do with something that had guns on it?
And Roosevelt, along with his instinct for a good story, was developing a vision of what America should be working for at home, a sense of mutual obligation that would anchor his Presidency in the war years to come, when the country was building ships as quickly as it could. Obama is an heir to that legacy, if an imperfect one. In contrast, Romney, as he exhibited in the debate Monday and throughout the campaign, may simply float away.