Who Won the Presidential Debate Last Night: Bob Schieffer Wins, Obama Comes Second

10/23 9:48 a.m The newspapers are claiming today that Romney was concerned about seeming less hawkish. It is certainly true that of the two of them, Obama was more combative. But I was continually surprised by his verbal stumbling and awkward phrasing. His "zingers" would have been much better in someone else's hands. Romney speaks a good deal more fluently. Romney's main verbal disadvantage is that he follows tangents too far. He seems nervous and evasive when he goes off-topic.

Overall I would say that Obama came across as more forceful, and Romney as more deferential. They were odd postures for the two of them. I also have to try to correct for my partisan bias when evaluating the debate. I thought it was excellent, and long overdue, when Obama pedantically explained what an aircraft carrier is. But an undecided voter would probaly see the situation very differently.

My intuition is that Obama won this debate, not decisively, and certainly not decisively enough to win the thing outright. But then again, if this is going to be an astronomically close election, every bit helps. I think Romney probably gained no new supporters he didn't have, and Obama may have convinced people that they trust him in times of crisis. It will be hard to tell.

10:28 Overall, I think Romney is a better public speaker that Obama. I think Obama is better prepared for this debate. Romney tends to get off-topic more easily. No one looks good in the squabble over Romney's op-ed wording. I re-read it. I can't even remember what they were disagreeing about. What I'll remember is that both looked petty and young.

Romney is at his strongest, hands down, citing how things are worse now than they are 4 years ago. I suppose that's why he's so eager to go off-topic. On foreign policy, he sounds lost.

10:10 I've been wondering about Romney's incessant praise for Obama's policies here. I think that Romney and Obama are fundamentally going for different goals here. Romney seems to be trying to show that he knows a lot about foreign policy. Obama is trying to remind voters both about his sophisticated understanding of the issues and how shallow Romney's critiques have been to date. It's hard to tell, but I think Romney has chosen a fundamentally bad goal. You can't play conservative in a super-close race. Douthat was right months ago: "It’s hard to watch Romney...and not be reminded, just a little bit, of John Kerry and Michael Dukakis."

9:58 Obama's answer there about going to Israel and feeling its pain was pretty good. But all he could do was just imply that Romney's own trip was terrible: why not say it! And when Romney brought up the apology tour, Obama responded by calling it a "whooper." How about: Governor Romney. What are you talking about? When did I ever do this? A lot of these issues are open to interpretation. this one's not. What are you talking about?"

Ok, this response to Romney is excellent. Romney really is all over the map.

9:45: Obama must have missed Battleship- that movie sucked real hard.

9:41 "Let's go to war on the nation of taxes" my roommate

9:37: why are we talking about education? Not germane!

9:26: Obama is rambling. The bit about "we can't exercise leadership abroad if we can't solve our problems back home" makes no sense.  As if other countries cared in the least about how effective our roads and bridges are, rather than our overwhelming military strength.

"The mantle of peace" requires "us to be strong." What does this mean? Also I love it when politicians take hostile leaders at face value. Ahmadinejad says that our economy makes us weaker and that's somehow now a true statement?

UPDATE: Here are some newspapers on the relative blandness of the candidates' differences:
WSJ: "The sharpest distinctions are those of style and rhetoric...'A lot of it seems to be a question of approach, of tone," said Jon Alterman, a scholar athtr eCenter for Strategic and International Studies. 'Is the policy different? I don't see it.'"
Reason: "During last week's vice presidential debate, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, struggled mightily to distinguish the two major parties' foreign policies"
NYT: "Over a long campaign, it’s become maddeningly difficult to tease out concrete differences in how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would deal with an angry, unmanageable world that at once craves and resents American intervention."
NYT "(in July): Despite the campaign positioning, on the most fundamental international issues, the president and his challenger generally share the same goals, even if they would get there in different ways."

The great powers, John Mearsheimer wrote, "are like billiard balls that vary only in size." In other words, domestic values and politics hardly matter; our means and ends are all but determined by our place on the world stage. The surest evidence for this, in my mind, is the astounding conformity between the Republican and Democratic parties, and their current standard-bearers, on foreign policy issues. In contrast to domestic policy -- in which the divide between the parties represents genuinely divergent visions for the United states -- the foreign policy differences we will see on Monday are likely to be miniscule next to the assumed common ground.

On what issue do the parties diverge substantially? Both support intervention in Libya, non-intervention in Syria, democracy abroad, oppose Iran's nuclear ambitions, view Russia with skepticism and view China as an ally that occassionally needs a strong scolding. The disagreements we've seen so far? Sparring over means to agreed ends and words. Whether Netanyahu is receiving sufficient respect, whether Obama erred in calling Bashar al-Assad a reformer, how quickly to pull out from Afghanistan, and the alleged sympathy from the administration toawrds rioting Egyptians and Syrians have been all we've had. But both candidates agree that Israel is a critical ally, that the world woul be better without Assad, that we need to withdraw from Afghanistan, and that terrorists are very bad. For all the fury, there's very little true adversity.

This is the near-unanamous foreign policy conensus of 2012. We have learned that our power is not unlimited, but we are still using it to try to shape outcomes abroad. We spend more time thinking about possible utopias and less time about unintended consequences. We may not be the hyperpower we once thought, but we still believe, as Romney put it, that "it is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history." Given that common premise, the real differences between the two candidates are rhetorical, and to me, pretty boring.

Certainly there are politicians and thinkers who oppose or defy this consensus. Nicholson Baker, Rand and Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Gary Johnson come to mind. But they won't be onstage Monday. Monday's debate will be a choice between a latte and cappuchino: preference depending on tastes, but substantively the same.

Let me also say now that I am not a Gary Johnson supporter. I'm leaning Obama at the moment, and if I could choose one person to be on stage with the two of them, it would be Carl Kabat, in his clown suit. Now that would be enjoyable.

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