Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Grading the final debate

This debate was never going to be as important as the previous two, because voters just don't think foreign policy is terribly important right now.

Apple's maps mishap, maybe.

Jim Nantz's Jets-Patriots gaffe, definitely.

Nuclear Iran -- hey, did you know if you unscramble "nuclear", you get "unclear"! (which, by the way, was the difference between both candidates' takes on foreign policy last night).

Ultimately, what emerged from the debate is that you saw the president (Barack Obama) and a guy who looked like he could be president (Mitt Romney).

Neither looked like they'd let al-Qaeda onto a Carnival cruise ship, neither looked like 19th century Prussians on crack.

This was a draw --  it won't shakeup the race, and despite polls showing the race tied, Obama needed a shakeup.

But despite the dearth of differences, there are a few, clear things we can glean from the debate, so let's glean away.

a. Obama exploited his natural advantage as president of these blessed United States.

A foreign policy debate is all about looking like a commander-in-chief, and Obama simply had more commander-in-chief moments, but only because he is the commander-in-chief.

Obama talked a lot about bin Laden and did so with eloquence, passion, and a dose of political exploitation -- a lethal trifecta.

Romney can talk about killing bin Laden; Obama killed him. That helped him, and there's no spin against it that doesn't sound petty and political.

Having said that, I don't think anyone buys the president's repeated assertions that Romney might not have gone in to kill bin Laden.

Come on, Romney's a Republican -- everyone knows a Republican president would've gone into another country and killed the world's worst terrorist. It's in the GOP's DNA.

When Obama pulled out that attack, it was bad on two scores. It 1) didn't pass the smell test to most voters and 2) smacked of political exploitation over one of the more sensitive issues out there.

But, nevertheless, Obama had some very good moments throughout the debate. Most importantly, he didn't look like Jimmy Carter, he didn't seem to be in over-his-head, and he didn't seem to be wearing a flower in his hair -- he was tough and resolute.

b. Romney won on style.

If there's one debate to flaunt your presidential demeanor, your cool, and your discipline under duress, it's a debate over foreign policy.

Romney did all that. He let a score of Obama's attacks go unanswered, but fought back on the ones that were important. That's called picking your battles, and it's one of the reasons Google probably won't start an automobile company in its struggle against Apple.

If Alf were dropped into the audience and told "one of these guys is president; one is not", I suspect he'd guess that Romney was president.

Mitt was more measured, more confident, and less combative. He didn't freak out, he didn't get testy. Great military commanders aren't oblivious to the bombs dropping and bullets whistling by them, they just act as though they're oblivious to project confidence. Sometimes, that works out (Gen. Douglas MacArthur). Other times, it doesn't (the entire British army in the Revolutionary War -- red coats, come on people. That's not confidence. That's insanity and bad fashion).

But Mitt had that quality last night, and I suspect voters will respond well to it.

c. Obama fought like he was the challenger.

National polls might show the race is tied, and Obama might be ahead in Ohio, but Romney's quiet confidence and Obama's aggressive posture showed the real state of this race -- Romney is winning.

To wit: Mitt passed on attacking Obama on the very first question (Libya), but the president immediately dug into Romney at his first opportunity. Rewind to the first debate, and the roles were entirely switched.

From the get-go last night, Obama attacked Romney at every opportunity. He famously quipped that Romney wanted to take America back to the foreign policy of the 1980's, the social climate of the 1950's, and the economic policies of the 1920's. In other words, finally be Bob Dole's Bridge to the Past!

Obama also returned to a recurring attack -- that Romney is a flip-flopper, someone who's "all over the map."

The problem for Obama is that he might have adopted the line too late.

You can't say someone is conservative to the core, then attack him for having no core a few weeks later. In short, Obama is flip-flopping on his attack!

Since the first debate, Obama's thrown a series of things at Romney -- some substantive (tax plan) and some utterly ridiculous (Big Bird and binders). The problem is that Big Bird and Binders have sucked up all the attention, while the more substantive tax stuff languishes -- to the effect hat Obama looks small. Romney's now running as the Vision/Big Picture guy, and it only helps reinforce that notion when his opponent puts money behind Big Bird and binders.

If you think the race is heading Obama's way, the tone of his attacks prove it ain't.

d. Romney was desperate to shed the GOP's hawkish image.

Mitt tried to get away from the two b's -- boots on the ground and bazookas.

He winced at the idea of military solutions, and instead, focused on hands-off prescriptions instead of hands-on-the-neck Dwayne Johnson stuff.

But he's still working from a disadvantage. When a GOP candidate talks about non-military solutions, voters probably automatically think: "That's what he says now, but he's a Republican -- troops are gonna be on the ground, at some point."

If the nation's in a dovish mood (and it is), it naturally helps candidates who are dovish -- and especially when the doves are sufficiently carnivorous to carve up the world's most wanted terrorist.

Obama is fond of saying that instead of building nations abroad, we should focus on building our own nation. That always gets boffo scores in focus group, and Romney should adopt the line with the same fervency if he were politically smart.

e. Even if Obama won, does it matter?

Snap polls show voters thought Obama won. So that means he'll win more votes, right?

Not necessarily. Think about it -- coming into the debate, voters, once again, expected the president to win the debate. But despite that, Romney still leads this race. That suggests that winning debates doesn't necessarily align with winning votes.

Sam Stein made a great point when said that debates matter, but maybe not any after that first debate.

Romney had a historic win in his first debate (according to Gallup and pretty much everyone) and neither the second nor third were close to as monumental as that first tussle.

f. Romney's clever move.

It's not clear if this was calculated, and it's not clear whether it will reap dividends, but Romney did something very slick last night.

Instead of attacking Obama directly for stuff getting crazy in the Middle East, he just talked about the crazy stuff in the Middle East.

That leaves viewers to make the following connection "Stuff's crazy in the Middle East, and the president is in charge of foreign policy.....(thinking).... (thinking)... Ah, yes. That means Obama bears some responsibility."

And thus, Romney attacked Obama without attacking him. Clever.

I don't know if it mattered or was calculated, but it was really a brilliant way of executing an attack on a sensitive subject. Obama has been "the voice" of American foreign policy, and voters tend to err on upholding that voice. Better to let voters' draw the negative conclusions than force them tehre.

OVERALL: There seems to be a growing consensus that just so happens to be one that's right.

Obama probably won this thing on points, but Romney won on proving he's up to the role of president. Meanwhile, Obama failed to shake up the race, so he lost on that score.

So you have Obama winning on one score and losing on another, while Romney lost on one score and won on another.

You know what that sounds like? The draw that this debate was.