There was an October surprise after all. The surprise was the debates.
It was not surprising that Mitt Romney is an effective debater. He always has been. What was surprising, and tremendously morale-boosting for Republicans, was that the debates actually changed the race. For all the hoopla surrounding presidential debates every four years, they rarely alter a presidential campaign significantly. But these ones have.
The first debate, in particular, removed President Obama from his protective media cocoon, and gave independent, undecided voters a chance to see Romney make his case unfiltered by belittling commentary. And what these voters saw in the former governor was an intelligent, confident, and reasonable man who is ready to be president. Measured in terms of public opinion polls, the Obama campaign has yet to recover. Before the debates, Obama was the clear favorite. After the debates, the race is a dead heat. So the debates were good for Republicans and bad for Obama.
Some Republicans have suggested that Romney should have been more aggressive Monday night, for example by attacking the administration's shifting and incompetent handling of the recent terrorist attack in Libya. While I'm entirely sympathetic to this argument on its merits, I think these critics miss the forest for the trees.
Romney's task in the foreign policy debate was to reassure independent and undecided voters that he is not George W. Bush, and that he does not actively seek new U.S. military interventions overseas. These voters are open to being persuaded by Romney on domestic economic issues, but they are leery of further U.S. military interventions abroad right now. Obama's playbook coming into the foreign policy debate was clearly to try and suggest that Romney would involve Americans in new unwanted wars within the Middle East or elsewhere.
In one answer after another, to Obama's obvious frustration, Romney dodged that trap quite effectively. It was impossible to watch the debate objectively and reach the conclusion that the former governor is an individual bent on involving the United States in fresh military crusades overseas. At the same time, on a host of issues including defense spending, Russia policy, radical Islam, and the Arab spring, Romney made the case very capably that Obama has not been a strong foreign policy leader. This was the tightrope that Romney needed to walk on Monday night. And he walked it.
Liberals are pleased that Obama got in some "zingers" during Monday's debate. I'm not sure they will help him. His comments on the Navy, for example, probably came across to many people as snide and patronizing rather than genuinely intelligent or tough-minded. We'll see how those comments go down in Newport News, Virginia, next door to the largest naval base in the world. Personally, if I had to make a choice between a zinger and the state of Virginia, I'd choose Virginia. Still, this is what the Democratic Party's current campaign has been reduced to: petty, condescending insults that bring hoots from like-minded liberals, but appear nervous and lame to the rest of the country.
This is not to mention Joe Biden's bizarre performance against Paul Ryan, which no doubt helped Republicans at least as much as Democrats in terms of its tone. Again, liberals mistook condescension for command. For reasons unclear to the rest of us, the Democratic Party has long considered Biden a great asset on national security issues. What the world saw that night, however, was a clownish, obnoxious vice president who is no credit to his cause. In a debate where Paul Ryan was the supposed underdog, that impressive young conservative came across as intelligent, courteous, principled, and literate on international issues, as well as domestic. So the positive momentum from Romney's first debate was maintained.
It was obvious coming into the final debate that Obama would come back swinging on foreign policy, and he did. Incumbent presidents usually have an edge on international issues, and this year, in strictly political terms, such issues were one of the president's relative strengths. However misguided Obama's international approach, the fact is that he's had double-digit leads on foreign policy issues for most of 2012. The challenge for the Romney campaign was therefore not to wave a magic wand, but to do the following:
- Push back against the White House on national security issues
- Present a strong foreign policy alternative
- Make the case for Romney as a plausible commander-in-chief
- Reassure independent voters that he is no warmonger
On every one of these points, the third debate achieved what the Romney campaign might reasonably have wanted. So who won the foreign policy debate? For all practical purposes, Romney.
The presidential race will now come down to issues and circumstances in key states like Ohio that have little to do with foreign policy. Either side might win. Obama may even hold on to a certain numerical edge on international issues. But the debates have now brought that particular advantage down from the double-digits to the low single-digits according to some polls. Given that Romney is running against an incumbent president who successfully ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden, this is a remarkable achievement. It allows Romney to pivot, as he already did during the foreign policy debate itself, toward his closing argument to independent voters - namely, that Obama has simply failed to bring about economic recovery, and that Romney will do better because he actually understands how a market economy works.
We'll see what happens next. But in terms of these debates, from a Republican point of view, it's mission accomplished.