Last night’s third and final presidential debate was on foreign policy, a subject which usually matters little to voters. As James Carville put it during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, what really influences the direction of the election is “the economy, stupid”. Our 2012 election is driven powerfully by the issues of the of the economy and domestic policy, and both candidates have given us starkly different opinions on these topics. They recognize that these are the most important issues to voters, and we saw that when the debate on foreign policy became a debate on domestic issues such as job creation and education. When it actually comes to foreign policy, there aren’t really too many disparate and different positions and policies to be had. Foreign policy is generally a subject that finds bipartisan cooperation and agreement in Congress, and usually the international issues facing the United States prompt responses and solutions which both parties find acceptable. We saw this last night as well, when Governor Romney failed to present any new or different solutions to foreign issues than President Obama. As Obama put it, Romney’s solution to the issues brought up during the debate was to “do the same things we do but say them louder.”
The debate itself was, in my opinion, better than the last two. Bob Schieffer had a successful night as moderator. He didn’t let the candidates go past their allotted times for too long, and he kept the debate moving with some interesting follow up questions. He did what Lehrer couldn’t and refused to let the candidates walk all over him or plead their way into having more time. I do wish that he kept the debate focused entirely on foreign policy and not let the candidates tangent into domestic issues like they did, but I can’t blame him. Domestic policy is the nature of this race, and the candidates would probably have found a way to insert their opinions on domestic issues anyhow. The candidates themselves seemed to behave better than we’ve seen before. They generally let each other have their say, and discussion between the two was more cordial than the last two debates. There was, of course, the occasional zinger directed at one candidate by another, such as Obama’s “horses and bayonets” comment, but the debate didn’t devolve into one-liners or the tense and awkward back-and-forth that we saw in the first debate.
Obama has been successful with his foreign policy during his first term. He oversaw the withdrawal from Iraq, helped set up the timetable for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and did implement the toughest sanctions on Iran in history. Going into the debate, he had the upper hand in experience. Romney has never had to deal with foreign policy. As a result, the debate for Romney was more of a critique of the last four years of America and Obama’s ‘unraveling foreign policy’, while the debate for Obama was a defense of his record and an attack on Romney’s lack of experience and ‘wrong and reckless policies’. The two candidates discussed issues such as the future of the Middle East, where they both said essentially the same thing about supporting civil development and spreading rights for women and minority groups. In a move towards the center of the political spectrum, Romney said he would continue foreign aid to Middle Eastern countries, an idea unpopular with many Republican lawmakers. Obama attacked Romney’s record, repeating a common campaign theme by saying that Romney has flip-flopped on his positions regarding the Middle East and foreign policy a number of times.
Both candidates painted themselves as staunch defenders of Israel, which goes to show how powerful an influence the American-Israeli alliance has on the opinions of the American electorate. Romney accused Obama of not supporting Israel, mentioning how Obama passed it over when going on a Middle Eastern ‘apology tour’. Obama, often criticized as being weak in support for Israel, tried to defend his record as one being a strong ally. He reminded voters of how the United States helped build a missile defense system for Israel during his administration and how he visited the country during his candidacy in 2008. However, both candidates refused to answer how they would deal with an Israeli attack on Iran (which, by the way, looks less and less likely every day) and what they would do if an Israeli-Iranian war broke out during their term as president. On the issue of Syria, Obama defended his record, and Romney presented nothing new in terms of policy. On the issue of Afghanistan, Romney promised to be out by 2014, a reversal again of what he has said in the past, and Obama hit him on that. Regarding China, both candidates hit hard on Chinese trade policies while also mentioning that the Chinese-American relationship will be an important one in the coming decades. Again, both candidates said little that differed from each other.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two candidates was on the issue of the military and military spending. Romney accused Obama of wanting to cut one trillion dollars in defense spending. This is due to the budget sequester, something which Obama has nothing to do with. Obama attacked Romney by saying he wanted to unnecessarily add two trillion to defense, money which the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t ask for and the military didn’t need. The main issue of the military expenditure boiled down to what the military needs in the future and how it will make use of its money. Romney accused Obama of cutting the navy’s amount of ships, to which Obama had his quip about needing less ships but also needing less ‘horses and bayonets’. I have to agree with the President. The United States already spends more than the next ten countries combined on defense. We don’t need more money in the defense budget when we are already the strongest nation in the world and are going to remain so for a long time.
The foreign policy debate tonight was interesting. Perhaps by its nature or perhaps by Romney’s inexperience with the matter, both candidates said pretty much the same thing when it came to most the issues and presented the same policies. They tried to interject their differing domestic policy positions into the debate to show how they were unlike their opponent. This is a result of the nature of this race, however, and as Obama put it, we aren’t looking for ‘nation building abroad but nation building back home’. As a final debate, however, I thought that the candidates performed cordially and performed well. I thought that the President looked and sounded very strong in what he had to say, but then again he knew what he was talking about. Mr. Romney, not so much.