Who Won the Debate Tonight: Romney Fails to Differentiate Himself, Possibly Losing the Election

Most commentators in the Twitterverse and here on PolicyMic seem to think last night’s debate was tedious and thus inconsequential. I couldn't disagree more.

The primary criticisms I've read thus far fall along these lines: the two candidates stuck to their party lines and weren't pushed hard enough on specifics by the moderator. And indeed, President Obama and former Governor Romney steered clear of any major gaffes — unless you count this one — succeeding by and large in sticking to their talking points.

This fact, however, should not come as too much of a surprise: we all know that campaigns rely on vetted talking points to present clear, coherent, and concise visions of governance. And with merely two weeks left in this election, both candidates are without a doubt disciplined in the art of sticking to these points.

But even if the final debate proved to sound more scripted than last week's debate, it was absolutely fascinating to watch Romney resign himself to the political hole he has dug himself into on foreign policy.

As I mentioned in a short blurb I wrote yesterday, it was clear what each candidate would need to do to "win" this debate. Romney needed to flex his foreign policy chops while painting Obama’s foreign policy positions — particularly in the Middle East — as failures. For his part, President Obama needed to talk about specific foreign policy successes while painting Romney as too similar to former President George W. Bush, whose political legacy is still highly controversial.

Unfortunately for Romney, in order to avoid being associated too closely to former President Bush on foreign policy — policies for which Bush was deeply unpopular by the end of his second term — the former governor found himself having to agree with most of the foreign policy positions Obama has taken over the course of his first term. This clearly left little room to mount any sort of plausible attack on Obama’s foreign policy doctrine.

Sanctions on Iran? We should pursue these more aggressively, but definitely the best policy. Drone strikes? Absolutely, we need ‘em. A draw-down of troops in Afghanistan by 2014? Of course, what else!? Romney didn't even appear to accept these policies begrudgingly. He just rolled with it, keeping his calm demeanor throughout most of the debate.

I completely agree that in all the debate was low on new substantive points. I would add, as a matter of fact, that that having essentially no portion of the debate focusing on the Euro-zone crisis was borderline irresponsible. But my point is this—if the debate was boring to most people, it was because Romney failed to present a coherent plan distinctive from the policies Obama has already implemented. No political drama = no fun. 

This is in itself a huge failure on Romney’s part, and Obama did a fine job using this to point out the larger “Romney the flip-flopper” narrative without looking too condescending. The fact is that tonight’s contest was supposed to be about Romney presenting a contrast to President Obama’s foreign policy positions to the American people. He failed to do so. This is hardly inconsequential. In fact, if the right people were watching last night it could be the whole election.

For a full debate and analysis, see here.