It’s too easy to invoke a cliché like “will the real Mitt Romney stand up?” Or, almost as bad, “Who IS Mitt Romney?” Or, maybe, who is he THIS week? But, after the third and rubber match presidential debate, the question is valid. And despite carping to the contrary by Far Right flunkies on Faux (FOX) News, queries about who took the third debate to tally two of three are equally academic.
Nor did Romney need any help from a moderator to look bad, as conservative critics charged after the second debate when they assailed moderator Candy Crowley for assisting Obama. And, as CNNBC commentators noted, “when they have to criticize the referee, you know their guy lost.” This time, the challenger did it all by himself.
In the third debate, Romney hit his re-set button — hardly for the first time — and reversed previous positions he’s held on issues such as the auto-industry bailout, veterans, women’s rights and trade with China.
But the most telling flip-flop, coming just two weeks before the election, had Romney saying he would now support a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — a definite date he has consistently opposed in the past.
He also said military intervention — in the Middle-East or anywhere else — should be a last resort. This from guy who has been a hawk for years and has criticized the Obama administration for using international support and sanctions against Iran’s nuclear ambitions in lieu of a run-up toward war with Iran.
By the debate’s end, viewers saw Romney agreeing with many of Obama’s positions — on the use of drones, Afghanistan, Syria and sanctions for Iran — with “Me too!” echoes that could not sit well with Romney supporters.
To back his call for a far bigger military budget than the U.S. military has even asked for, Romney said Obama had weakened the U.S. military posture because our navy now had fewer ships than in 1917. Obama countered with is best jab of the evening with “we also have fewer horses and bayonets” because the nature of warfare has changed. We also, Obama said, now use aircraft carriers and boats that go underwater and are called submarines.
With that retort, Obama came close to being condescending to his challenger — a tactic Romney used during the second debate when he was condescending and dismissive of both the president and the moderator. Romney critics called that evidence of his aloofness and a distaste of being challenged by a man used to being surrounded by board room lackeys who never questioned or challenged him.
As in the second debate, Obama called Romney out on one lie and half-truth after another — including a “whopper” about Libya — in the third. Along with saying that Romney’s foreign policies have been “all over the map” and not in America’s best interests, Obama accused Romney of being tied to the George W. Bush foreign policies “of the past.” Many of Romney’s key foreign policy advisors, Obama noted, are the same people who shaped foreign policy for Bush Jr.
“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,” Obama said to Romney.
On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy declaring a Cuban missile crisis, Obama was a decisive commander-in-chief during the third debate. Romney, trying hard to look presidential, still managed to come off as a somewhat confused wannabe with no recollection of positions he’s taken (“Romney-sia?”) during months of Republican primary campaigning and even since he secured the GOP nomination last July.
In the third debate, Obama conveyed the impression of steady leadership that parried every Romney effort to paint the president as weak on foreign policy and one who sends mixed signals to America’s allies on whether the U.S. can be trusted.
Rather, it was Romney who came across as a foreign policy lightweight. Obama pointed out that Romney, just a few months ago, called Russia — and not Al Qaeda — the biggest geopolitical threat the U.S. faces. After having offended every U.S. ally on a post-GOP convention foreign tour, Romney in the third debate and with Sara Palin-like innocence of geography, said Syria was Iran’s only outlet to the sea. A quick glance at a Middle East map shows that Iran — separated from Syria by Iraq — has an ample seacoast on the Persian Gulf.
Romney’s handlers may have tried to appeal to still-undecided voters who don’t want to see the U.S. sucked into yet another war by presenting their candidate as a reasonable man. But moving to safer and more centrist positions can’t help but confuse the Far Right and Tea Party support base Romney has pandered to for months and who must now be seriously wondering about who their guy really is.
Handlers also expected to score major points over Obama’s handling of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed, including the U.S. Ambassador. It didn’t happen and Romney strategists opted not to press the second-debate approach of semantic arguments on whether Obama had used his next-day “act of terror” statement in reference to the Benghazi attack or as a generic term. Right wingers had called Benghazi a “cover-up” bigger than Watergate, but Libya made little impact in the third debate.
Now, the tumult and shouting — if not the TV attack ads — are finally over. And it’s up to voters to decide, when far more than the effect of three presidential debates will be tested.