Romney wasn't going to do anything to make suburban women, that key voting bloc, think that he was going to get into any wars. "We can't kill our way out of this mess," said Romney about the Middle East. He talked about alliances, promoting foreign aid, and working to promote democracy. When he discussed domestic policy—on the pretext that America can only be strong abroad if the economy is strong at home—Romney stressed his desire to work with both parties and referred to his record of cooperating with Democrats in Massachusetts. Several times he made this point, which is aimed directly at swing-state women who approve of Romney's desire to work in a bipartisan way. "Republicans and Democrats came together on a bipartisan basis to put in place education principles that focused on having great teachers in the classroom,” said Romney. Bipartisanship and education: the double woman-voter pitch. Both candidates mentioned greater freedom for women in the Middle East several times.
Just because there were no obvious Romney gaffes doesn’t mean that Obama didn't get the better of him at times. The president treated Romney like a pretender with derisive asides. "The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back," Obama said, making fun of Romney's anti-Russia stance. When Romney talked about building more ships, the president took his pants down. "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 was a regular theme; the message was that Romney was a novice and a dummy. "I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy—but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong."
Domestic politics also came in to play in a debate over the auto bailout. There were several times when Romney decided not to answer Obama's claims. He simply let arguments pass by. After Obama launched into one long answer, Romney did try to pipe up. When Scheiffer said he'd had his say, Romney, who had moved past other moderators, said "Well, that’s probably true." But when it came to the auto bailout, Romney defended himself vigorously against the charge that he wanted to let the auto industry go bankrupt.
Partisans love this stuff, but do undecided voters? Do the voters who were with Obama in 2008, but think he's tarnished his brand? The “bayonets” line is actually tied to a policy idea—that a mindless defense buildup is sloppy, inefficient, and out of sync with the threats America faces. But voters might have been lost in the snark. Voters in Virginia, especially southeastern Virginia where they like Romney's plans for a bigger Navy, probably weren't laughing so much.
Obama's best moment of the night was when he defended his foreign travel and told the story of visiting with Israeli families as a candidate. It was a strong moment because Obama combined force, a little umbrage taking, and a specific story that punctuated his claim that he was a strong ally of Israel.
Another moment that may have connected with voters was when the president told the story about a young girl who last spoke to her father moments before the World Trade Tower collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. "For the next decade, she was haunted by that conversation," said the president. "And she said to me, “You know, by finally getting Bin Laden, that brought some closure to me.” A president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for doing very little in office spent much of the debate highlighting his military accomplishments.
After the second debate, Romney's oldest son Tagg said he wanted to slug the president for the mean things he said about his father. After Monday night’s debate, the president spoke to Tagg on stage, the two laughed, and at one point the young Romney’s hand was on the president's back. It wasn't a gesture of menace, but collegiality. In a debate about war and diplomacy, in the end, diplomacy won out.
Video Explainer: Does the U.S. military still use bayonets?
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