Welcome to the last U.S. presidential debate! Tonight’s debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News, is probably the last major opportunity for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney to significantly alter the race. It’s about foreign policy, a subject that should be in Obama’s wheelhouse, though the questions about the Benghazi attack still linger. For his part, Romney has the Twitterverse salivating in anticipation about the next “Big Bird” or “Binders Full of Women” moment. Let’s get started!
9:04 PM Congratulations if you had “four minutes” in your “how long will it take Mitt Romney to say something awkward?” pool, as Romney falls flat with a joke about trying to “be funny, not on purpose.” I have to be honest: I’m kind of going to miss having this guy on the national stage if he loses.
9:06 PM A mixed bag in Romney’s opening comments. He does something very smart as he preempts Obama by “congratulating” him on killing Osama Bin Laden, since he knows that will be a major talking point for the President. He also claims that Mali is being taken over by “Al Qaeda-type individuals”. First, what does that even mean? And second, since when is Romney concerned about Mali?
9:09 PM I thought Obama’s opening comments were underwhelming. He came off as a little halting and disjointed. Could this be a redux of the first debate?
9:10 PM A few minutes ago Romney said in regards to the Middle East “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Now he’s talking about the rule of law, gender equality and civil society around the world. What is going on here? Usually Republicans try to be “stronger” on national security, but basically Romney is attacking Obama from the left.
9:15 PM Obama mocks Romney, telling him about what he’s “learned as commander-in-chief” and then lecturing him on the importance of being clear and consistent with allies and enemies about where the U.S. stands. Romney looks very uncomfortable. He may be a little out of his depth here.
9:24 PM Obama is doing the same thing Romney did earlier, preempting a sure Republican talking point by mentioning the importance of the relationship with Israel in his response to a question about the revolution in Egypt. By my count, that’s the third time Obama has mentioned Israel already.
9:28 PM Obama starts talking about nation building in the U.S., opening the door for Romney to talk more about the economy, which he is clearly more comfortable doing. Romney for some reason cites Iranian President Ahmadinejad saying that the level of U.S. debt makes it not a great country. Memo to Romney: Ahmadinejad is probably not the most creditable analyst you can find on America’s economic problems.
9:32 PM I think Obama’s constant references to the “wealthiest paying a little bit more” are a mistake. I get the point and know he’s trying to appeal to middle class voters, but it has too many echoes of class warfare for my taste. Sheldon Adelson just wrote Romney another $5 million check.
9:34 PM Romney again says, “I know how to create 12 million new jobs” for the umpteenth time. I love how he says this as if there’s some magical secret to which only he is privy.
9:40 PM Obama makes a great point about how the U.S. spends more on its military than the next ten countries in the world combined, and yet Romney and the Republican party still want to increase defense spending. For anyone who has looked at the U.S. budget deficit issues, it’s one of the most frustrating things that you see. The U.S. has no need for such ridiculous defense spending, but when it comes down to it, reducing “support for the military” is not good politics.
9:43 PM Funny moment as Romney attacks Obama for reducing the number of ships in the navy to the lowest point in close to a century, and Obama counters by explaining to Romney that the world has changed a little and that the U.S. also has “fewer horses and bayonets,” and then informing him about the existence of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Romney looks uncomfortable.
9:50 PM One of the really interesting things about this debate is how often Romney is agreeing with Obama’s foreign policy. He does it again here in talking about sanctions against Iran. Romney thinks the sanctions are working, he just would have done them sooner and “tightened” them.
9:56 PM Romney has his best moment of the night so far by talking about Obama’s “apology tour” to the Middle East and how he visited a bunch of Islamic nations but skipped Israel. Obama responds very well however by talking about his trip to Israel as a candidate and how he visited the holocaust museum and under-siege border towns instead of “attending fundraisers,” referencing Romney’s own recent trip.
10:08 PM Schieffer slips up by referencing the capture of “Obama bin Laden.” That loud cheer you just heard was from every Republican political strategist watching the debate.
10:12 PM Romney is asked about Obama’s use of drones: “I support that entirely,” he says. It’s really amazing how little of a distinction he is drawing in this debate. It’s almost as if he came into this and said, “screw it, no one is going to be voting based on foreign policy so I’m not going to even bother coming up with one.”
10:16 PM Electoral politics rears its head as Obama references a recent trade victory for “steelworkers in Ohio” in response to a question about the rise of China, and then begrudgingly adds “and Pennsylvania” to make it seem less transparently political. Somehow I think if the case had involved “steelworkers in Connecticut” it may not have warranted a mention.
10:25 PM Obama and Romney get into a spat over what Romney would have done with the American auto industry. Obama accuses Romney of “trying to airbrush history” to which Romney curtly responds “you’re wrong!…you’re wrong Mr. President!…you’re wrong!” You get the sense from their schoolyard banter that these guys genuinely don’t like each other.
10:31 PM Closing statements. Obama starts off by saying that by now the American people have seen “way too many TV commercials,” which Romney apparently thinks is hilarious because he inexplicably starts to giggle. Obama makes a strong appeal by tying in the economy, national security and the future; amazing how far he’s come from the first debate when his closing remarks were really uninspired.
Romney also has a pretty strong close, making it all about the economy and jobs, which is clearly his only chance to win the election. Interestingly on CNN they show the real-time reactions of a focus group of undecided voters and they’re not really buying what Romney is selling. I think it’s fair to say that Romney didn’t set the world on fire in this debate.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that Obama won the debate. He had a much better grasp of the issues and was aggressive in painting Romney as “all over the map,” a charge that he levied a couple times. He even accomplished the feat of lecturing Romney about foreign policy a couple of times without it sounding overly condescending.
For his part, Romney had some moments where he seemed a little out of his depth and the rest of the time was mostly interested in agreeing with Obama’s policies and saying either “I would have done it sooner!” or “I would have done it better!” Tellingly, the Republican partisans in the spin room afterwards spent most of their time talking about how the debate didn’t matter because the trajectory of the race was already set, while the Democrats tried to spin it as the polar opposite of the first debate.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, I think the first debate was more important because people will be primarily voting on economic issues and not foreign policy, so there’s some truth to the Republican spin. Saying tonight didn’t do Romney any damage, however, may prove to be wishful thinking.