When Bob Schieffer could focus attention back on foreign policy, Governor Mitt Romney tensed up ever so slightly. Clearly both Romney and President Barack Obama utilized the third and final debate, themed as a foreign policy contest, as a last public forum to tout their economic and domestic policies. Despite the preponderance of foreign policy talking points, the debate drifted, drastically at times, towards topics like education and what taxes would be cut to increase military spending. Obama conveyed his command of foreign policy, while also highlighting some of Romney's greenness on the subject, but the effect at this late stage remains uncertain.
Packed with a few punches and canned statements, the debate certainly worked to Obama’s strengths. He highlighted his doctrine, a less-interventionist approach to political crises, and deftly deflected questions on Benghazi. Romney remained rooted to his chair and made attempts at pulling the conversation back from the parapet and towards more comfortable confines, like the economy and national debt. He conveyed some of his topical naïveté, as he questioned the size of the U.S. Navy. Obama’s response was condescending, yet indicated a depth of insight and analytical thinking. Many of Romney’s statements did appear canned and overly-rehearsed and he failed to connect many of his, at times, rambling statements.
Obama started aggressively and was able to adequately defend his record. However, when discussing the death of Osama bin Laden, he implied Vice President Joe Biden and himself quarreled over the issue, a potentially damaging remark only in the environs of the Republican spin room. Obama played it safe and refined. His stringent adherence to rhetoric remained airtight and his vision far rosier than Romney’s estimation. In truth, Obama won this debate by benefit of the political capital he accrued throughout these four years. Barring a significant lapse in articulation or an ill-timed gaffe, Obama was on the podium prior to tonight’s 9pm airtime.
Obama reacted, at times, complacently, potentially a consequence of the ease to which his message landed. He alleged Romney investing in Chinese companies who in turn furnished Iranian oil companies with funding. However, he made no subsequent claims and failed to expound on this statement. Romney, in truth, did not respond to the allegations.
What the quantitative impact will be cannot be known until, most likely, next Monday, with a glimpse materializing by Friday. However, this victory is far more qualitative than quantitative. It reassures the base (although antagonizes the far left due to Obama’s unapologetic use of military measures deemed a violation of international law), convinces a few independents, and does not embolden the Republican spin machine, who were certainly scanning desperately for mistakes on which to pounce.
Romney can be happy he did not capitulate the election tonight on a topic far out of his element. With business experience aplenty, Romney did show himself to be inexperienced, and ultimately an unconvincing Commander-in-Chief in this regard. Although both men were guilty of steering the debate towards domestic issues, Romney was far more culpable and perhaps benefited from these brief respites away from this truly foreign, policy discussion.
Despite a narrow Obama victory, this election would not have been settled tonight without a meltdown by either candidate. What will be mined and extracted over the course of the next week is whether this debate changes the polling data. If Romney wins the election, he will go a long way to assure the electorate he is capable of understanding the complexities of the current global experience. And if Obama earns another four years, he will need to reassure his voters non-intervention in the deteriorating Syrian maelstrom, among other ineptitudes, was a decision best for not only the country, but for the rest of the world.