Neither candidate shined on Monday night, but Romney did what he needed to portray himself as a pro-peace foreign policy moderate, which is probably just what any undecided voters swayable by a foreign policy debate wanted to hear.
From a spectator's perspective, the last presidential debate was borderline boring. The candidates (surprisingly) grappled with the complexities of most issues discussed, often trading weak zingers. Both candidates want to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, both want to use sanctions and the threat of force to bring Iran to the negotiating table on nuclear weapons, and both will stand with Israel against attackers. About the closest thing we had to a gaffe was Romney saying Iran needed Syria to access the sea (hint: see the Persian Gulf).
Two moments did present a measure of absurdity. Romney spoke of indicting Ahmadinejad at the ICC for incitement to genocide, while Obama made a wisecrack about the U.S. Army no longer having horses and bayonets.
But the story of the debate wasn’t one-liners or gaffes. It was Romney.
He criticized Obama for trying to shoot his way through Al Qaeda, and trumpeted the need for a more comprehensive long-term plan to counter violent extremism. He even went so far as to promote the recommendations of a UN-sponsored conference of Muslim scholars for countering extremism. He spoke of China as a potential partner, not just an economic adversary. In short, he shook the Etch-a-Sketch and tacked toward the middle.
None of these positions are congruent with traditional Republican talking points, but they worked for Romney on Monday night. With undecideds likely wondering whether Romney would prove another neocon, the GOP nominee successfully allayed their concerns.
For his part, Obama seemed to be playing not to lose. He spent the night defending his own record, and pressed Romney on the inconsistencies between his stump speech and his new-found moderation, but he failed to convince viewers that he’s an obviously better choice on foreign policy than his opponent.
While nothing he said stood out particularly, he did have one memorable moment.
In response to Romney’s worn “apology tour” accusation, Obama explained that his first trip as president wasn’t to Israel but to Afghanistan to visit the troops. In a jab at Romney, he said that on his first trip to Israel he didn’t solicit donations, but instead visited a Holocaust museum.
Most Repubican and Democratic voters were locked behind their candidates, and for them, last night's debate figured to change little. Romney did more to make his case to the few remaining undecideds. This isn't to say that Romney wasn't self-contradicting, or that Obama disappointed. But we got about what was expected from Obama, while Romney made a strong appeal to any moderates hesitant to back him by avoiding hawkish stances and promoting peace and pragmatism.
Whether he would keep this approach as president or shake the Etch-a-Sketch one more time is a different question.