BOCA RATON, Fla. — It was early in the proceedings here on Monday night when I was struck with a horrible vision. It may have been right about that moment in the final presidential debate when Willard Romney — who, for most of the past two years, has been the most bellicose Mormon since they disbanded the Nauvoo Legion — looked deeply into the camera's eye and, inches from actual sincerity, said, "We can't kill our way out of this mess." Or, perhaps, it was when, in a discussion of his newfound dedication to comprehensive solutions to complex problems, he announced his devotion to "a peaceful planet," or when he cited a group of Arab scholars in support of loosening the grip of theocratic tyranny in the Middle East.
It was the horrible vision of John Bolton in four-point restraints.
You have to give Romney and his campaign credit. They said they were going to do it. They telegraphed the punch five months ago. They told the entire nation that there would come a day in which everything Willard Romney had said about anything in his entire seven-year quest to be president would be rendered, in the memorable word of Nixon White House flack Ron Ziegler, "inoperative." They told us quite honestly that their entire campaign was going to be based on an ongoing argument between the Willard Romney who ran for the Republican nomination and the Willard Romney who thereupon would run for president. They told us he would renege on his previous positions, and he has. They told us he would reverse his field over and over again, and he has. They told us that the only real principle to which the man will ever hold firm is that he will be utterly unprincipled.
They told us that, sooner or later, everybody who supported him through the primaries because he was the only Republican candidate who didn't sound like he belonged in a padded chapel would find themselves under the bus. And nowhere in his campaign was Romney firmer in his resolve than he was to a modernized version of the neoconservative agenda that so thrilled the world under the leadership of C-Plus Augustus. A full 17 of his 25 primary foreign-policy advisers had been deckhands on that particular plague ship, Sailing Master Bolton chief among them. And, at the end of the day, they all just turned out to be the last people to go sliding under the wheels. For the full 90 minutes of the foreign-policy debate at Lynn University here on Monday night, whether it was the president speaking or Romney, neoconservatism's breath barely clouded the mirror.
"I notice," Delaware attorney general Beau Biden told me in the spin room afterword, "that none of those people are out here talking right now."
(Of course, it is entirely possible that the Romney people have glowing internal poll numbers that indicate that, as long as he didn't show up on Monday night looking like Mr. Natural threatening to turn NATO into a cannabis society, he'd be okay. They then could have accepted with equanimity the several moments in which Romney plainly didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about. Syria is Iran's "route to the sea"? Did Bain provide the financing behind the project that paved over the Persian Gulf when the rest of us weren't looking?)
Romney was for bilateral diplomatic solutions. Romney was for comprehensive reform packages for the entire Middle East. Romney likes what the president did in Libya (at first), in Syria, in Egypt, and what the president is doing with his flying killer robots in a dozen places. In fact, the president drew clearer foreign-policy differences between himself and Beau Biden's father than Romney did between himself in the president. The most spectacular reversal came on Afghanistan, when Romney appeared to commit himself to the same 2014 withdrawal date over which he has been belaboring the president in practically every speech since he left for Iowa a year ago.
It was purely surreal, and it was not made any less so by the fact that Romney was clearly uncomfortable with his new moderate foreign-policy programming. (That was plain early on, when he completely took a pass on the opening question, which concerned the events in Benghazi.) Romney was sweating and stumbling through enough passages to reinforce the fact that he and his running mate, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Wisconsin, are going to have to leave anything that happens overseas to their coterie of advisers — if, of course, any of them are still speaking to Romney after he sold them out so egregiously just now.
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[Romney] knew nothing and said less.
That is what history always has told us about the career of Willard Romney: sooner or later, he will sell your ass out to the highest bidder and walk away whistling in the general direction of anything to which he feels entitled. In this case, that would be the leadership of the Free World.
Otherwise, it was a dispiriting evening on a great many levels. Clearly, the president had a superior command of the issues under discussion. He finally and thoroughly eviscerated the idiotic talking point about how the Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. (You may have noticed that rejoinder because it was when the phrase "horses and bayonets" started trending.) He easily parried the hoariest Romney attack of all — that the president embarked on "an apology tour" upon taking office — by shooting back that he'd gone to Israel "without bringing any fundraisers," and talking about his visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem. He forcefully defended all the policies he'd put in place that Romney, on this evening at least, so enthusiastically supported. He made clear from his words and his manner that he has had to make decisions over the past four years that he never dreamed he'd have to make when he was running in 2008 and John McCain was ripping him for his lack of experience, and that those decisions have marked him, whether he wins this election or not, for the rest of his life. On the substance of what came under discussion on Monday night, this was no contest at all. It was an obvious and preposterous mismatch.
My god, Romney actually said that America doesn't install dictators, ignoring the fact that we've had these problems with Iran for 60 years precisely because we overthrew an elected president and installed a friendly dictator whose rule was so bloodthirsty that religious fanatics ran him out, imprisoned our embassy officials, and gave Ben Affleck a chance 30 years later to direct a cool movie. Do we honestly have to count them all off? Somoza? Rios Montt? Pinochet? And, yes, Saddam Hussein. Romney sounded like he was taking history at one of those Jesus-on-a-dinosaur middle schools that "Bobby" Jindal has opened in Louisiana. And yet, this abysmal ignorance may not come to matter a damn.
A discussion of foreign policy that did not mention climate change. (Four debates and nary a mention. Somebody else is going to have to tell the polar bears.) A discussion of foreign policy that mentioned teacher's unions exactly as many times — once — as it mentioned the Palestinians, and I am not making that statistic up. A discussion of foreign policy that did not mention hunger, or thirst, or epidemic disease, but spent better than ten minutes on The Fking Deficit. (Here Romney cited in defense of his position that noted political economist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) A discussion of foreign policy that was all about threats, real and imagined, and wars, real or speculative, and weapons, and how many of them we should build in order to feel safe in this dangerous world. (Romney actually argued that we should go back to the "two-war" strategy that we followed throughout the Cold War. Against whom in god's name does he think we'll be fighting the second war?)
The rough consensus on foreign policy, to which Willard Romney spent most of the evening appealing, is a truncated, dismal thing, a grim march through a universe of bad options and worse choices. "Harvey Cox said once that not to decide is to decide," former senator Bob Graham said after it was over. "The only option not worth taking is the one where we do nothing."
Unfortunately for Graham's theory, there is no "we" in these questions. There was no "we" in the final presidential debate this year. In no area have we as a self-governing nation so abandoned our obligations as we have on foreign policy. In no area are we so intellectually subservient to expertise, and to the Great Man Theory of how things should be run. In no area are we so clearly governed, rather than governing ourselves. The president, at least, occasionally seems to be aware not only that this is true, but also that it puts the whole experiment of self-government in mortal peril, just as the Founders knew it would when they lodged the war powers in the Congress, which has spent the last 225 years giving them back, in one way or another, to the Executive, which is presided over, always, by One Great Man. He at least seems self-aware enough to appear troubled by the power he nonetheless wields.
There is no nation in its right mind that would put its foreign policy in the hands of the Willard Romney who showed up on stage here in Boca Raton on Monday night, particularly since he had so clearly abandoned everything else he believed on the subject for the purpose of fronting himself as a moderate in order to run out the clock over the next three weeks. He knew nothing and said less. But the debate will be scored as no better than a tie because, well, all the options are too miserable to contemplate. I think if Romney had called for drone strikes on the headquarters of the National Education Association, he might take 47 states. Especially if he couched the raid as a deficit-reduction scheme or an attempt at education "reform."