During last night’s foreign policy debate, the Mitt Romney of the Republican primaries disappeared. Romney’s April criticism of Obama’s decision to commit the United States military to helping oust Muammar Qaddafi in Libya disappeared. Missing was a promise on his website to reduce foreign aid by $100 million. Romney’s past criticism of what he called Obama’s rushed exit from Afghanistan vanished as well.
Given his lurch to the center on domestic policy, that comes as no surprise. But it does not make Romney’s record – or his willingness to change positions – a nonissue. If Romney wins this election, it will be arguably the latest and greatest shift to the center in presidential campaign history.
Last night the new Romney praised Obama’s toppling of Qaddafi, said he supported the president’s policy in Afghanistan and agreed that the administration’s economic sanctions on Iran were “crippling.”
After the debate instant polls, most pundits and even a dozen undecided voters on Fox News said Obama had won on substance. But there was a chorus of commentary arguing that Romney’s flat performance was smart politics.
An analyst on CNN pointed out that Romney’s call for a larger Navy would play well in Virginia, home to the country’s largest naval base. The chairman of the Republican National Committee said each minute Romney appeared on national television and did not appear to be a heartless corporate mogul was a victory. Other Romney supporters said Romney had succeeded at not looking like a “warmonger” or “another George W. Bush,” a performance that might appeal to female voters.
Still, if Mitt Romney wins this election, he will do so with a foreign policy blank slate, not a clear vision for the future.
To be fair, Romney was right in places. When asked about whether the U.S. should “divorce” Pakistan, he counseled patience and correctly said it was in the interests of the United States to try to help stabilize a troubled, nuclear-armed country. And he largely endorsed Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Yet all those positions were far more moderate than the ones Romney adopted in the Republican primaries.
In many ways, the final debate was a reversal of the first one. Romney was the confident front-runner trying to project calm and strength, while Obama was the attacker, questioning – and at times distorting – Romney’s record.
The former Massachusetts governor was bold and aggressive on four issues. He accused Obama of not sufficiently supporting Israel, falsely claimed that Obama engaged in an “apology tour” in the Middle East, said the result of the Arab Spring was a “rising tide” of “tumult” and “confusion” and vowed to declare China a currency manipulator on “day one” of his presidency.
Taken together, these seem less like a coherent foreign policy than a formula for Romney’s electoral victory.
Of course, all politics is part theater; Obama showed that four years ago. Presidential candidates have been judged on debating style, not merit, for decades.
There are enormous holes in the president’s foreign policy record. He glossed over his failure to deliver on promised assistance to post-Arab Spring countries, lack of action in Syria, a largely failed Obama policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and his overreliance on drones.
Romney attacked Obama on some of these issues, but his passion flared where the electoral calculus called for it, such as China’s cheating or loyalty to Israel. Romney also used exaggerated descriptions of instability in the Middle East to pose the foreign policy version of Ronald Reagan’s “are you better off than you were four years ago” question.
It was an uninspiring final debate of an uninspiring campaign. Obama’s overconfidence cost him the first debate, and possibly cost him the election. The two clashed tenaciously in the second debate but avoided specifics or outlining their own domestic agendas. And the final debate seemed more about politics than strategy.
In the end, it is Romney’s approach – not his performance – that most troubles. After what should have been a pivotal 90 minutes, I know less about Romney’s foreign policy vision than I did beforehand. I only know his electoral calculus.
David Rohde is a Reuters columnist.