The final debate: foreign policy

2012-10-23 12:39
US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are pictured at the end of the final debate. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are pictured at the end of the final debate. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

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US President Barack Obama squared off in the final presidential debate against Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Monday evening, and although both candidates had a decent outing, no real damage was done.
 
While Romney was the clear winner in the first debate, and Joe Biden trounced Paul Ryan in the vice-presidential debate, the latter two between the men vying for the presidency were less conclusive. In fact partisan analysis took over. If you have been watching right-leaning Fox News, you would be in no doubt that Romney wiped the floor with Obama. Had you been watching liberal MSNBC, you’d be under the impression Romney need not bother turning up for the election. Democrats think Obama won both debates while Republicans also claimed victory. Obama did, however, learn his lessons from the bollocking he received on his first outing.

Foreign policy
 
In the third debate Obama did enough to feel like he finished ahead, but I doubt it will make a massive amount of difference, largely due to the fact that both candidates treated foreign policy with a modicum of respect - ie. understood it is a very complicated web of decisions. This isn’t the usual deference given to issues that are discussed at rallies, as you would know if you’d seen the men campaigning up until now. Unfortunately, it made for a rather boring debate unless you're someone who follows foreign affairs closely.

It is also worth pointing out that there was a huge baseball match and Monday Night Football (the NFL on Mondays wins weekday television ratings virtually every week, by a handsome margin). Complicated policy versus two of the USA’s top three sports is not a recipe for attractive political discussion - particularly when this is the fourth debate of the cycle.

Romney continued his debate policy of tacking to the centre, which resulted in him agreeing with Obama on a multitude of fronts. This was seemingly a decision to play defence - in other words, not mess up. This, however, is what candidates do when they are ahead - Romney is not ahead. The Romney-Obama race is incredibly tight nationally (although Obama has a lingering slight edge in swing states), and refusing to take any risks or mount any new attacks was not the way to play this. Obama took at least two memorable points off Romney, once telling him “the 1980s are calling to have their foreign policy back”, and later delivering a powerful comparison on the men’s trips to Israel as candidates:

“When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable. And then I went down to the border towns of Storok (ph), which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms. And I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids.”
 
Romney also didn’t help himself by twice claiming, when lashed by Obama, that attacks on him by the president was not solving America’s problems, or laying out an agenda for doing so. Whether this is right or wrong, it didn’t come off well and made Romney seem weaker than he otherwise would have been.
 
Composure

Romney was composed throughout and the arbitrary accusation of “not looking presidential” which regularly does the rounds though the US media was laid to rest. Romney was well briefed and, as I mentioned earlier, was prepared to get into some of the nitty-gritty detail about foreign policy in a debate format which allowed both candidates to speak for decent lengths of time - some credit must go to moderator Bob Schieffer who allowed a lot of discussion, even though the candidates sometimes went way off track (at one point both men got into a discussion about domestic economic policy).

Romney’s composure, in the face of some quite frank Obama aggression, was a good change from the previous town-hall debate, where he did seem flustered at times.
 
It was Obama that looked exasperated in spurts, largely due to being unable to pin Romney on specific foreign policy positions he has taken during the campaign thus far. It isn’t really Obama’s fault: Romney has been unclear on important points such as the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, and whether he backed US intervention in Iraq and Libya.
 
Both men sang from the same song sheet on Israel and attacks by drones, and agreed philosophically on the danger of Iran obtaining nuclear weaponry. They also both repeatedly bashed China, which is seemingly a prerequisite to run for political office here.
 
Obama finished ahead in this debate, but there is too much overlapping in the men’s foreign policy for this to define the election. While the impact of presidential debates is often overstated, foreign policy in this election cycle is likely to have even less impact than the previous debate. If there is to be a change in the polls this close to election day (6 November), it will be by whoever can seize momentum from their performance on Monday.

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Read more on:    barack obama  |  simon williamson  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  us elections 2012
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