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.)
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?