Monday night's foreign policy debate — the third and final chance for the American people to evaluate the policies and character of their next president — reflected a striking degree of consensus between the two competitors.
President Barack Obama's tone was tougher than usual, his demeanor more commanding, perhaps because he has been commander in chief for four years. But a new, kinder and gentler Gov. Mitt Romney emerged last night, a centrist who spoke of maximizing "soft" power, renewing the Arab-Israeli peace process, and warning that we can't "kill" our way out of the growing mess in the Middle East. Whereas Obama talked tough, Romney tacked to the center.
What emerged was "Obamney" — a surprising role reversal and basic agreement on the substance, if not the tone of and approach to foreign policy. Both men endorsed nation-building at home. And both men sought repeatedly to steer the debate back to the economy. But here, Romney appeared to stand on safer, more familiar ground.
Romney made no gaffes in this final debate, set off no alarm bells and demonstrated a good grasp of foreign affairs. Obama dropped the offensive smirk he had worn during that damaging first encounter. There were fewer digs and only one or two zingers. President Obama's assertion that we had fewer "bayonets and horses" in response to Gov. Romney's complaint about the shrinking number of ships in the U.S. Navy immediately went viral on the Internet. But last night's debates offered some surprises.
Perhaps seeking to narrow the gender gap that has so favored his opponent, a more moderate Gov. Romney talked repeatedly about how to maximize soft power, endorsing the substance, if not the tone and approach of Obama's signature policies. The governor shifted his stance on Iran, for instance, by effectively endorsing President Obama's use of "peaceful and diplomatic means" to persuade Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
But Romney asserted that he would use those means more effectively than the president has. He also appeared to embrace President Obama's 2014 withdrawal timeline from Afghanistan, with little wiggle room. Previously, Romney said he would consult with his generals and evaluate conditions on the ground.
President Obama, by contrast, called China America's adversary for the first time, shifting his administration's message and as the foreign policy site The Cable noted this morning, contradicting his own secretary of state. "China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner," Obama said. China doesn't have to be an "adversary," Romney responded, demonstrating his more conciliatory side.
Both men vied for the title of Israel's closest friend, closing what little policy differences existed between them prior to the debate. Romney blasted President Obama's "apology" tour of Egypt and the Middle East soon after becoming president, noting that the president Obama had failed to even visit Israel, which Israel and American friends and foes alike had noticed, the governor said.
President Obama responded that when he had visited Israel, as a candidate, he had not taken donors along with him, (as Romney had), but had visited Yad Vashem and the towns that Hamas was targeting from Gaza. As a result, Obama said, he had invested in Iron Dome, Israel's air defenses, to protect those towns.
Both men called Israel America's closest ally in the region and pledged, in Gov. Romney's words, that if Israel were attacked, America would have Israel's "back."
There were some strange omissions. Gov. Romney failed to grill President Obama about his disastrous handling of the attacks on the U.S. consulate and annex in Libya, resulting in the death of four American officials. Nor did he hone in on the administration's conflicting, contradictory explanations of that tragedy. And President Obama did not make as much as he could have of Romney's strange foreign policy gaffes — his suggestion, for instance, that England was not quite prepared for the Olympics.
But each man seemed to accomplish his goal for the evening: President Obama sought to assure Americans that he was tough-minded and unapologetic for America; Romney seemed to want to allay concerns that he would return to the wars of President George W. Bush or embrace extremist views within his party, rather than energize his party's base.
Romney's shifts may reflect recent polls. The latest Quinnipiac University/CBS poll shows that Obama's double-digit lead among women voters (55 to 40 percent) in swing-state Ohio has propelled him to a 5-point lead there. But the momentum appears to be with Romney, who halved the 10-point lead the president enjoyed in that same poll when it was taken on Sept. 26. Women voters generally don't care much for confrontation and wars, and little that Romney said on Monday night will frighten them.
President Obama, by contrast, seemed to be courting men. Here, Romney holds a 51 percent to 44 percent advantage.
If Gov. Romney won the first debate — big time — and President Obama recovered on the second, this third debate seems to have been a draw, or a slight advantage for the president. His campaign will undoubtedly make much in coming days of Romney's shifting positions, as Romney seeks to stress the gap between candidate Obama's vague pledges of hope and change and President Obama's accomplishments.
Ultimately, the third debate is unlikely to determine what will be the critical factor in the contest on Nov. 6 — each campaign's ability to get its faithful out to vote.