Commentary: The Last Debate Featured the Professor and the Freshman

Mitt Romney frequently agreed on foreign policy with an Obama who appeared strongly presidential.

Posted: 10/23/2012 08:11 AM EDT
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

In their highly riveting and last debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney took on the thorny issues of foreign policy, with a particular focus on the Middle East. While Romney was determined to show that he was highly fluent in international affairs, his effort was simply no match for the command that Obama demonstrated in his grasp of the issues on the world stage.

The performance of the two men was very much like watching a tenured college professor trading views with an incoming freshman. Romney seemed less than steady during most of the debate, acknowledging his agreement with the Obama foreign policy so often that any viewer might reasonably wonder why the former Massachusetts governor was running in the first place.

Most troubling, however, was Romney’s decision to unveil policy positions that he never previously revealed. In several cases, they were in sharp contrast with views he had taken earlier — a classic Romney trait.

Take Afghanistan. After a campaign in which Romney criticized the Obama administration for setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from that country, he announced that he was in full support of the president’s deadline of 2014 for getting American forces out of Afghanistan. 

For months, Romney had been critical of Obama’s decision to condemn the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But during Monday night’s debate in Boca Raton, Florida, when asked if he would have continued to support Mubarak in Egypt, Romney responded, “no,” once again co-signing Obama’s position.

Yet, in some ways, Romney succeeded in achieving his major objective. His aim was to portray himself as a moderate who was far from the war-mongering conservative that he is widely considered to be. Yet, he did so in a way that made his foreign policy acumen seem sophomoric at best and incoherent at its worst. Romney was, as President Obama said repeatedly in the debate, “all over the map.”

On the other hand, Obama demonstrated a command of international topics that was so forceful and self-assured that he inspired confidence. At times, the president addressed his challenger with an air bordering on condescension.

In one exchange, which will undoubtedly find its way into the history books, Romney called for more spending on the military, pointing out that the United States now has fewer Navy ships than at any time since 1916. “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” The president added, “And so the question is not a game of battleship, where we're counting ships. It's 'What are our capabilities?'”

It was a fascinating debate where the two principal figures were clearly mismatched. Romney seemed out of his league, a candidate driven by politics whose foreign policy views boiled down to a simple, “me, too.” On the other hand, Obama seemed fully presidential, a quality that can only inspire confidence in a commander in chief of the United States.

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(Photo: Marc Serota/Getty Images)

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