Presidential Debate Predictions: What to Watch For During the Foreign Policy Debate

Finally, President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off in their third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida on Monday. So what should we expect to get out of the debate, other than a bad hangover on Tuesday morning?

With foreign policy as the focus of the debate, the president has the advantage. Foreign policy has historically made presidents appear, yes, more presidential. Bad job numbers on the domestic front? Take a day trip to London, salute some soldiers, and the American people will surely get that warm fuzzy feeling of nationalism. America. Freedom.

But this particular president has more than just a historical advantage. He has presided over a term in which no international attacks have taken place on domestic soil; he has “ended” the war in Iraq as he said he would; he is “winding down” the war in Afghanistan; and of course, he successfully harpooned the white whale in Osama Bin Laden.

So can we look forward to a debate where the president’s responses to all Romney attacks will be: “Yes governor. But I killed Osama,” and the crowd cheers louder than after a fact check from Candy Crowley?

The main topic will be the changing role of the United States as a superpower. How should we approach China’s “cheating” and all of our debt? What is the best way to approach the Arab Spring? Should we be more hawkish in Iran? Intervene in Syria? Get in or out of Afghanistan?

And what about Russia? What about Russia?

Foreign policy is indeed complicated and it is likely we won’t delve too far into the complexities during a 90-minute debate. Instead, it will be more of the same politics of presentation.

The president has a record to go off of, and for once in the debates, this will work to his favor, perhaps not so much because of what he’s done, but because of what Mitt Romney hasn’t. At this point, regardless of party affiliation, voters know Romney is an empty vessel who will do whatever is politically expedient at any given time: your opinion of him ultimately hinges on your definition of the greater good. Given the economic mess, the main reason Obama still leads in this election is, and always will be, because of how poor of a candidate Mitt Romney is.

Granted, the foreign policy debate will be another area where people will glimpse into a world where Mitt Romney, the person, is president. To a certain extent, Obama should continue to paint Romney as an extremist not only on social issues, but on foreign policy. In Romneyland, abortions are illegal, evil plutocrats own the government, and war with Iran is just around the corner. The problem is that Obama himself hasn’t proven to be exactly a dove on foreign policy issues, and in the end, he doesn’t want to appear weak. As far as the “red-line” on a nuclear Iran goes, it is likely that Romney will try to expose daylight between Israel and the U.S., and Obama will maintain that despite some quibbling with Bibi, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel has never been stronger.

In Romneyland, competence will of course be a key issue, because between both Romney and Ryan, there is virtually nil foreign policy credentials, unless of course you count the Olympics as foreign policy experience. It may come down to that dire scenario: Do you trust someone like Romney with the big red button at 3am? The guy can’t even go somewhere without insulting our greatest ally, who knows what he’d say to our enemies? 

Then, there is of course Libya, an issue which seems to be the Romney administration’s best line of attack, despite the dangers of over politicizing the event, which the president rightly nailed Romney down on in the second debate. The rejoinder for the Obama team, will most likely be somewhere along the lines of their initial response, which painted Romney as a “squeeze, blast first, ask questions last,” politically craven, warmongering kind of guy. Romney needs to tread carefully on Libya, and if he does, he could turn Libya into a losing argument for Obama, as it should have been in the second debate.

It will be interesting to see how Americans react to the so-called hawkishness of Mr. Romney because -- and I think this is the most important point -- no one wants to fight another war. Sure, there are some, but overall it does not poll well at all. Also, when it comes down to it most voters, won’t be thinking about Libya when they go to the polls. Libya isn’t a singular issue people will vote on. Perhaps our relationship with China can be tied back to the economy, but currency manipulation is not, and never will be, sexy.

A few more things to look out for: Will Romney own up to some of the stances he’s had on foreign policy in the past? Or will he, as in the first debate, “moderate” his positions? How similar will Romney’s and Obama’s positions appear? Who does it help if the candidates don’t seem that different? How often will we hear the words “China” and “cheater” in the same sentence? What about leadership? Will Obama link Romney’s time at Bain to outsourcing in China? Should we militarily arm the Syrian resistance? And how does Bob Schieffer fare as the moderator?

As we approach Election Day, this debate could very well be glossed over in voters' minds, unless of course either Romney or Obama has some kind of horrible gaffe. And there is always the possibility that Romney will begin short circuiting mid-debate only to burst into flames, revealing to all Americans that, yes, he is in fact an android.

The onus is on Romney to prove he is competent and knowledgeable on matters of foreign affairs. The question is how big of a hit he needs to gain momentum after this debate going into the election. Romney has gained momentum since his first debate but some of this has been slowed by Obama’s win in the second. Nothing short of a clear Romney win will do the job in Monday’s debate for the Romney camp given the current Obama electoral lead in Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin, as well as the possibility that the job numbers may continue to improve in November as they did in October. Foreign policy is undoubtedly crucial, but this election will always be about jobs. 

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Seth Fraser

Seth holds a BA from SUNY New Paltz in English and Journalism, and a Master's degree in Political Economy from The New School for Social Research. He has worked with The Clinton Foundation, The Council on Foreign Relations, and written for publications mainly on finance, politics and music.

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