Mitt Romney brought a knife to a gunfight. A butter knife. In the third and final presidential debate, focused on national security and foreign policy, the Republican challenger seemed to be living by the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. In this case that meant a mostly passive, heavy-on-agreement discussion with his opponent the commander in chief. President Obama, by contrast, was on the attack, repeatedly calling Romney reckless and looking every bit like the politician who thinks he's behind in the race.
President Obama won the third debate, articulating his policies more forcefully, offering more detail and a coherent foreign policy rationale. Romney generally presented bromides and talking points in a style that was at times tentative. When he talked about foreign policy, Romney occasionally sounded like a student trying to prove that he'd crammed for the test, rattling off the names of countries and bullet points he'd recently committed to memory. In the end though, the political question is not who won the policy debate on foreign policy, but whether Romney cleared the bar as a plausible commander in chief. Voters are going to hire him based on his ability to handle the economy, which means he does not need to be as competent on a secondary issue like foreign policy. He just has to be acceptable.
What does acceptable mean? For Romney, it probably meant no mistakes (and there were no obvious gaffes). The country will now return to talking about the economy, the issue he wants to talk about.
The immediate exit polls were mixed. CBS polled undecided voters and they gave the night to Obama, 53 percent to 23 percent. CNN's poll of registered voters gave the narrow edge to Obama, 48 percent to 40 percent. While Obama called Romney reckless several times, there was nothing the former Massachusetts governor did or said that seemed reckless. After the first debate, Romney campaign strategists said that voters might not have followed the specifics of Romney’s plans but liked that he had them. In the third debate, Romney was hoping that his vague but confident pronouncements would do nothing to frighten undecided voters, even if it did cost him the Council on Foreign Relations crowd. And he took no risks by mounting a serious and sustained challenge of the president. In the CBS poll, 49 percent said Romney could be trusted in an international crisis. That was only a few points above what people thought going in to the debate. If he’s clearing the acceptability bar, that number suggests it’s not by much.
When Romney talked about non-foreign-policy issues during one of the debate’s many cul-de-sacs into domestic policy, it was like a switch had been thrown. He once again sounded more confident. Romney so thoroughly abandoned the aggressive, fact-checking style that got him into trouble with the president over Libya in their second meeting, it was hard to imagine they were the same candidate. Moderator Bob Schieffer raised tougher questions in his introduction of the topic than Romney ever did.
Obama was able to even use Libya as an example of his foreign policy approach, which he argued showed what you could accomplish if you tend to your allies. “I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to, without putting troops on the ground at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq, liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years.”
Like a boxer hugging his opponent to kill time, Romney signaled agreement with Obama on Syria, Iranian sanctions, defending Israel, Afghanistan, and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. When he fought back against Obama's attacks, his stock phrase was generic and with an eye toward swing voters: "Attacking me is not talking about an agenda." (The Romney domestic policy critique is that Obama has no second-term domestic agenda, either.)