Asked a question about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday night, Mitt Romney found time to talk about the national debt—America's, not Egypt's. Asked a more open-ended question about America's role in the world, President Obama eventually pivoted to a topic that even the most comprehensive of foreign policy debate previews failed to predict: the U.S. education system.
Needless to say, the third and final presidential debate proved once again that a moderator can ask whatever questions he or she would like but ultimately it is the candidates who steer the conversation wherever it is they want to go. And for stretches long and short last night, both candidates set a course straight for the swing states expected to decide this November's election.
Below you'll find a segment-by-segment breakdown of how both Obama and Romney found ways to sprinkle their favorite domestic talking points into their foreign policy answers. As you'll see, both proved more than cable of staying on topic when they wanted (see: Israel), but didn't hesitate to return to their tried-and-true domestic-heavy stump speeches when they thought it would help them.
A quick note before we begin: Obviously, there isn't a firewall between domestic and foreign policy; you can't talk about the military's budget in isolation, and you likewise aren't going to discuss international trade policy without talking about how it impacts the market at home. So you can certainly make the case that many of the domestic issues raised by both men are either directly or indirectly tied to foreign policy.
That said, what we were looking for were non sequiturs or domestic talking points shoehorned into a 90-minute foreign policy debate. Such pivots may have started out simple enough but before the night was over they'd prompt moderator Bob Schieffer to utter what was surely the least-expected line of the night: "I think we all love teachers."
Topic One (technically two 15-minute segments): The Middle East and the new face of terrorism. Both candidates began the night by largely playing along with the night's foreign policy-oriented format. But things began to go awry in the second half of the first segment when Egypt came up. Asked by Schieffer whether he agreed with the president's decision to publicly call for Mubarak to step down, Romney said that he did. Apparently left with some time on his hands, the GOP challenger then filled it with an answer that included this:
"... for us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong. And that begins with a strong economy here at home. Unfortunately, the economy is not stronger. When the -- when the president of Iraq -- excuse me, of Iran, Ahmadinejad, says that our debt makes us not a great country, that’s a frightening thing. Former chief of the -- Joint Chiefs of Staff said that -- Admiral Mullen said that our debt is the biggest national security threat we face. This -- we have weakened our economy. We need a strong economy."
And just like that we were off and running (home).
Topic Two: America’s role in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the amorphous nature of this topic, what had been a minor departure from the course Schieffer had laid out for the night quickly became a full-fledged detour. Romney quickly returned to his we-must-have-a-strong-economy-at-home line of attack and Obama followed by being sure to mention a whole slew of his favorite domestic policy ideas.
"...in order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job. ... You can’t have kids coming out of college, half of them can’t find a job today, or a job that’s commensurate with their college degree. We have to get our economy going."
"... what we also have been able to do is position ourselves so we can start rebuilding America, and that’s what my plan does. Making sure that we’re bringing manufacturing back to our shores so that we’re creating jobs here, as we’ve done with the auto industry, not rewarding companies that are shipping jobs overseas. Making sure that we’ve got the best education system in the world, including retraining our workers for the jobs of tomorrow. ....
"And we’ve got to make sure that we reduce our deficit. Unfortunately, Governor Romney’s plan doesn’t do it. We’ve got to do it in a responsible way by cutting out spending we don’t need, but also asking the wealthiest to pay a little bit more. That way we can invest in the research and technology that’s always kept us at the cutting edge."
Obama closed that point with a reference to what he said were Romney's "wrong and reckless" domestic and foreign policy proposals. From there the domestic-policy trickle turned into a flood.
Romney responded by laying out his often-mentioned (but never-fully-detailed) five-point plan, the majority of which is domestic-centered: 1) become energy independent, 2) increase trade, 3) provide training programs for workers and students that "put the parents and the teachers and the kids first", 4) balance the budget, and 5) "champion small business."
The president came back swinging at his challenger over small business before going heavy on education, a topic that would come up again before this thing wrapped up. (Note the closing pivot back to "the world," a common tactic deployed by both candidates throughout the night):
"When you were asked about reduced class sizes, you said class sizes don’t make a difference. But I tell you, if you talk to teachers, they will tell you it does make a difference. And if we’ve got math teachers who are able to provide the kind of support that they need for our kids, that’s what’s going to determine whether or not the new businesses are created here. Companies are going to locate here depending on whether we’ve got the most highly skilled workforce.
"And the kinds of budget proposals that you’ve put forward, when we don’t ask either you or me to pay a dime more in terms of reducing the deficit, but instead we slash support for education, that’s undermining our long-term competitiveness. That is not good for America’s position in the world, and the world notices."
If Schieffer briefly lost control of the proceedings, this was probably the moment. "Let me get back to foreign policy," he said before seeing his effort rebuffed by Romney's request to make one quick final point about his record on education. (Spoiler: it was neither quick nor final.) Romney:
"While I was governor, I was proud that our fourth graders came out number one of all 50 states in English, and then also in math. And our eighth graders number one in English and also in math. First time one state had been number one in all four measures. How did we do that? Well, Republicans and Democrats came together on a bipartisan basis to put in place education principles that focused on having great teachers in the classroom."
Obama and Romney then clashed over whether Romney deserved credit for his state's success, before Schieffer regained the remote and—at least temporarily—flipped back to the foreign policy channel with a question about military spending. You can't say spending, of course, without leaving an opening to talk about the larger budget picture. But even though Romney made sure to mention his plans to end Obamacare, ultimately we'll give both men a pass here because military spending is so directly tied to the larger budget debate.
Topic Three: Israel and Iran. Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! By our count both men kept their remarks focused on foreign policy and the topic at hand. Hooray!
Topic Four: Afghanistan and Pakistan. But we were doing so well... This time it was Obama who was the first to pivot:
"I think the American people recognize is after a decade of war it’s time to do some nation building here at home. And what we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools, making sure that, you know, our veterans are getting the care that they need when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, making sure that the certifications that they need for good jobs of the future are in place."
Topic Five: China. Again we're inclined to largely give both men a pass here for the reason mentioned in our intro (that is, it's tough to talk imports and exports without talking about the other side of that coin). So even Romney's "I’m a son of Detroit" declaration is at least somewhat relevant to the larger question of international trade. Still, that didn't mean the night's final segment went off without a few final domestic detours—and most notably a U-turn back to the sleeper topic of the night: teachers.
Here was Obama, again, going after Romney on the topic:
"...it is true that in order for us to be competitive, we’re going to have to make some smart choices right now. Cutting our education budget, that’s not a smart choice. That will not help us compete with China. Cutting our investments in research and technology, that’s not a smart choice. That will not help us compete with China."
And then the part of Romney's response that eventually prompted Schieffer to stipulate that "I think we all love teachers":
"The policies of the last four years have seen incomes in America decline every year for middle income families, now down $4,300 during your term. ... When you came to office 32 million people on food stamps. Today, 47 million people on food stamps. ... It hasn’t worked. You said by now we’d be at 5.4 percent unemployment. ...
"And that’s why it’s so critical, that we make America once again the most attractive place in the world to start businesses, to build jobs, to grow the economy. And that’s not going to happen by just hiring teachers.
"Look, I love to -- I love teachers, and I’m happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers do that. By the way, I don’t like to have the federal government start pushing its weight deeper and deeper into our schools. Let the states and localities do that. I was a governor. The federal government didn’t hire our teachers."
So there you have it. No word on if any of those teachers—regardless of who hires them—can make foreign policy interesting enough to the American public that voters actually want to hear a 90-minute debate about it.