The final presidential debate on foreign policy muddled the differences between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama on foreign policy, but foreign policy is second or third on most voters’ list of priorities. Therefore, the debate will likely not impede the Romney surge that preceded the debate. Notwithstanding President Obama’s juvenile retorts, the Marines still employ bayonets, and Mr. Romney’s steady march to victory continues apace.
Stylistically, Mr. Romney showed for the third time that he is every bit as presidential as the current president. In contrast to the incumbent, who interrupted, offered snide remarks and focused incessantly – as he has done for almost four years – on himself, Mr. Romney was confident, knowledgeable, and upbeat about America’s future opportunities, not his, under a Romney presidency. Displaying his confidence and his maturity, he was strong, specific and he played fair by not interrupting or condescending; the president was none of these things.
Substantively, and importantly, Governor Romney was forward looking, and he called out Obama’s failure to look ahead, saying “attacking me is not an agenda.” Mr. Obama seemingly took this to heart and the next day released an “agenda” for his next term.
Thematically, Mr. Romney succeeded in offering policy critiques mixed with compelling calls for renewed leadership abroad, something he has convincingly and increasingly done, as in his excellent speech at VMI. Mr. Romney rightly criticized the president’s “apology tour,” reliance on international consensus, and resort to a kill-only mentality (“We can’t kill our way to victory”). Mr. Romney’s agreement with aspects of President Obama’s policies made Mr. Romney look more, not less, reasonable to undecided voters less attuned to foreign policy issues.
Further displaying an adept recognition of the power of perception, Mr. Romney made clear to independent and undecided voters that he is not a carbon copy of George W. Bush. Mr. Romney made clear that as president, he will not be preemptively sending troops into harm’s way to nation build, and that a Romney administration would prudently seek to end to existing conflicts and pursue peace, while taking the necessary steps to retain a robust military. This was appropriate in a nation weary of war, but cognizant of the lurking threats abroad. The political wisdom of this strategy is obvious: Options that risk no American lives risk no American votes.
Yet Mr. Romney also recognized that voters understand that military strength is indelibly tied to economic strength. In this regard, he successfully pivoted from foreign policy to domestic policy and continually pointed out Mr. Obama’s dismal economic record. This was smart because history teaches that when the economy is struggling, voters break for the challenger. In 1980, 2000, and 2008, when the economy was in recession, the challenger or challenging party won. In 1984, 1996 and 2004, the economy was considered healthy and the incumbent won.
The upshot of the final debate, and the debates overall, is a small but clear advantage for Mr. Romney down the home stretch. Rasmussen indicates voters gave Mr. Romney the edge on the debates by an 8 point margin, 49-41. Fundraising again in Los Angeles this week, the president seems to understand his increasing vulnerability, and Mr. Romney’s opportunity. If the governor can harness the momentum afforded by his victory in the debates, and capitalize upon the perception and enthusiasm gaps currently trending in his favor, his chances come Election Day appear strong.
One of Mr. Obama’s self-professed models, President Reagan, quipped that “the status quo” was Latin for “the mess we’re in.” Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the debates and the abiding focus on domestic issues have only served to reinforce that the status quo is dismal, and that four more years of Mr. Obama’s leadership will do nothing to change that. In Mr. Romney, voters see a credible alternative to the status quo, a chance for prosperity after four years of failure. The time for choosing has come. The reckoning beckons.