The third presidential debate is the final big national event before the race to the finish. Tonight’s debate—which will focus on foreign policy—is a double superlative: it involves the most important issues which a president has more control over than any other and the political stakes are the highest. Serious political consequences have a tendency to consume intelligent argument, which means the debate could end up feeling like the larger campaign where the fracas has little to do with the actual issues. Think back to the last presidential debate’s confusing exchange of blows over Libya. Now imagine 90 minutes of that.
The foreign policy debate welcomes platitudes. The president wraps himself in the office and the challenger can paint a fantastical vision of the world without fear of being called out. Romney advisers say that in the first few debates voters warmed to him because it sounded like he had a plan. They didn't know exactly what that plan was, but he sounded confident and that was enough. That voter reaction is especially likely in the foreign policy debate, where the listening audience is going to be making their opinions based on which man sounds like he shares their values, looks comfortable in the commander in chief role, and seems to be telling the truth. Those qualities may or may not have anything to do with the specific questions asked of the candidates.
The debate takes place at a dead even political moment. According to the Real Clear Politics’ average of the polls, it's tied. A new CBS national poll has the race tied. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has it knotted at 47. If this is the case, both men have something to lose and something to gain—if they are willing to reach for it. This is their last big chance to change the dynamic in those key battleground states with a single shot.
How the campaigns read the polls may determine their strategy. The Romney campaign would like us to ignore every poll but the Gallup daily tracking poll in which Romney is ahead by 7 points. If that's what they really believe, then we'd expect a different Romney than the one who seized on the president's remarks about Libya in the last debate. Anxious to score points, Romney lost his way by focusing so precisely on the president's words. If he's really got a solid 7-point buffer, he merely needs to look presidential, make his case for a world of clarity, and commit no unforced errors. Why should he risk the race by pressing his foreign-policy case too forcefully? He might look intemperate, and even in the best circumstances what he stands to pick up might not be that great. Voters care more about the economy, and foreign policy is typically the incumbent’s turf. In that reading of the polls, all Romney has to do is make sure his tie is straight and that he does nothing to accidentally scare swing state voters.
How does Obama’s team see this third encounter? The president battled back in the second debate, but not enough to make up all the ground he lost in their first meeting. The Pew poll shows that the president's foreign policy advantage has dropped, along with his poll numbers. A month ago Obama led Romney by 15 points on foreign policy, now he only leads by 4. That may very well be the result of Romney's overall surge—people are seeing him in a more favorable light so they see him more favorably across all questions.
Whenever both men drill down on a topic and seem particularly passionate, think about the voters in battleground states. So if the scuffle is over Libya, think about trust and suburban women. Romney wants you to think that the president isn't being honest with you about the chain of events. Obama wants you to think that Romney is so politically craven that he won't be a good steward of the office. He's driven by politics, not a core set of values. When you hear about China, think about Ohio blue collar workers. When you hear talk about defense spending, think about Virginia; the state is the No. 1 recipient of federal defense dollars. In the key swing district of Hampton Roads, 45 percent of the economy is tied to the military.
If the candidates are using foreign policy as a proxy to appeal to battleground-state voters, it means the substance is going to be a good distance from reality. Every president faces a foreign-policy crisis pretty early into his administration. When he does, he must adapt his thinking to conditions as he finds them, rather than to conditions he pretended existed when he was campaigning. John F. Kennedy campaigned against the "missile gap" with the Soviet Union. Then he got into office and found out the United States had more ICBMs than the Soviets. Promises made in these debates are quickly undone in office. Bill Clinton was going to get tough on China, but then handed Beijing most-favored nation status. George W. Bush was going to have a humble foreign policy and eschew nation building, right before he invaded Iraq and tried to build a new nation-state there.
Barack Obama has his own surprises. He learned that a covert cyber-war was underway with Iran. He learned that having plans for Afghanistan was far different than getting a reluctant Pentagon to implement those plans. And he learned that the world is a messy place.