It was so bad that the GOP spin doctors took to the media center before the debate concluded to start repairing the damage from their candidate’s disastrous debate performance. With the exception of Romney surrogates and the parrots at Fox News Channel, the world saw President Obama take Mitt Romney to school in the final presidential debate last night at Lynn University in Boca Raton Florida. The topic was foreign policy and the commander-in-chief affirmed his standing as a global leader and exposed his opponent as an uninformed neophyte not ready for the world stage. The best Republican partisans could do in their post-debate spin was claim their candidate “looked presidential” and “passed the leadership test.”
The clearest indication that the President was in command was Mitt Romney’s total capitulation on the situation in Libya and the absence of any effort by the GOP candidate to challenge the administration’s handling of the incident in Benghazi. It was apparent that Romney was told to steer clear of any harsh criticism of the President’s handling of the attack on the U.S embassy after being embarrassed in the last debate when the Republican was fact-checked by moderator Candy Crowley on his mischaracterization of President Obama’s post-attack comments. Time and again throughout the debate last night President Obama ceded no ground and pointedly put Romney on the defensive over his constant changing of policy positions.
President Obama was most effective in exposing Mitt Romney’s naïve world view and his embrace of a Cold War era foreign policy posture. In one of several memorable lines the President delivered he told his opponent, “And the 1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” On several occasions the President managed to tie Romney to the Bush/Cheney regime and effectively put the GOP nominee in the neoconservative box. For his part, Romney appeared totally unprepared to engage in a substantive discussion on foreign policy and frequently slipped back into generic campaign rhetoric, unable to offer any specifics. At one point the former governor of Massachusetts suggested the public could go to his website to get the details on his military budget after moderator Bob Schieffer pressed him on how he would increase military spending and cut the deficit. In response, the President replied, “we went to the website and it [Romney’s numbers] still doesn’t work.” It was that type of night for Mitt Romney as the “hits” kept coming as the President landed retort after retort, reducing his challenger to a literal spectator. And when he wasn’t watching the President lecture him, he was agreeing with him and affirming his policy positions; such as the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran. Romney even pulled a complete reversal by stating if elected all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014. In previous statements Romney was insistent that a firm deadline for withdrawal should not be set.
The difference in stature last night was striking. The President appeared presidential while Mitt Romney looked like a college debate club member trying to find his footing on stage. There was a noticeable credibility gap in each man’s understanding of our military needs, as was on display when Mitt Romney attempted to make an issue over the current ship count in the Navy. Relying solely on fleet size as the measure of defense capability, Romney suggested that our ship capacity was below that of the early 20th century Navy. The President quickly countered that we also have “fewer horses and bayonets” to paint Romney as out-of-touch with the new global realities.
Knowing that this would be his last face-to-face encounter with Mitt Romney before the November 6 election, the President also reinforced some economic messages. President Obama made certain to tie domestic energy policy, education and job growth as essential to the nation’s security. He was direct in criticizing Mitt Romney’s investment in companies that exported jobs to China. Romney tried to turn the tables and suggest that the President was engaged in personal attacks but it was clear that the subject of Bain capital was a sensitive area for the Republican. At no time after the President twice referenced Bain did Romney respond to the charge. It was a “deer in the headlights” moment with the President taking the antlers home.
Mitt Romney’s foreign policy understanding was limited to the recitation of nation names and repeatedly reverting to the talking point of “Iran is closer to nuclear capability than four years ago.” Ironically, Romney’s circular dialogue most often led him back to agreeing with President Obama. And when there were differences, the President was quick to point them out but also to challenge Romney directly on the truthfulness of many of the former governor’s policy flips. Most dramatically the President confronted Romney on his flipping on the Detroit auto bailout and the presence of troops in Iraq. Unlike the first debate, and even more so than last week at Hofstra University, President Obama forcefully called out Romney for making statements that contradicted his previous positions. Midway through the debate it was clearly taking a toll on Romney as he was more subdued and spent the remaining time generally talking about domestic policy and avoiding any specifics on his foreign policy platform.
Throughout the debate Mitt Romney appeared and sounded anything but presidential. Despite Republican partisans’ best efforts to do damage control, the third and final debate of this presidential election year was won decisively by President Obama.