Round three wasn’t a total snooze-fest, because there were a couple of lively moments, but the overall energy level for the third debate was considerably lower than the first two. Perhaps it was because the candidates were seated, or because foreign policy issues are inherently less debatable, due to the candidates’ similar stances. Whatever the reason, though, this exercise was less like a debate and more like a conversation that could have occurred over a game of shuffleboard at the Del Boca Vista Retirement Community.
Obama Dominates…the Staring Contest
Someone must have really gotten on Barack Obama’s case about his debate-one demeanor – full of head bows, nods, and grimaces – because in this debate I’m not sure that he blinked. Whenever Romney spoke, Obama stared at him, and frankly it was a little bit distracting and creepy. I understand the intent, especially after the first debate critiques, but the staring was clearly forced, noticeably painful, and probably rehearsed. I’m not sure that the staring matters as to who won the substantive portion of the debate, but I thought it was an interesting contrast that gave us insight into Obama’s debate preparation tactics over the past couple of weeks.
As for Obama’s overall performance, I suppose it was not bad. He clearly came looking for a fight with Romney and attacked at every opportunity. Obama is now playing from behind, so his aggressiveness was expected. His “horses and bayonets” comment (another memorable quip courtesy of Obama’s speechwriting team, no doubt) was biting, sarcastic, and patronizing, and just the sort of thing that scores “debate points” for those keeping score. Whether or not debate points translate into votes is an entirely different matter, though. The American people are not stupid. At this point in the race, I believe voters are looking for substantive arguments and a detailed vision for the future of the country, not zingers and cheap shots in a debate. Obama had little of the former and a lot of the latter.
“Do No Harm”
The national polls are trending in Romney’s favor, and have been for the past couple of weeks. Romney’s strategy in this debate appeared to be twofold: (1) don’t mess up and (2) don’t come across as a trigger-happy cowboy. I believe he accomplished both goals. First, Romney made no significant mistakes while discussing foreign policy, and when given the opportunity steered the conversation back to his comfort zone, the economy. That being said, he demonstrated a deep understanding and substantial knowledge of foreign policy issues, which was very important. Political commentators call this “passing the Commander in Chief test” – i.e., establishing once and for all that you are prepared to lead in the area of foreign policy.
Second, Romney conveyed poise, strength, and appropriate restraint when discussion military action, which was intended to alleviate concerns that he is a warmonger. Although some conservatives probably wanted to see more fire and brimstone from Romney in this area, I think that his tempered responses were appropriate and needed. Romney successfully portrayed himself as the “peace candidate,” saying we cannot simply “kill our way out of” extremist threats. Instead, he said, we must use economic and covert tactics to succeed in the Middle East, and to keep America safe.
The Only Debate that Matters
The debates are now over, and election day is fast approaching. The consensus among political commentators is that Romney dominated the first debate, while Obama possibly eked out wins in debates two and three. The first debate changed the course of the race dramatically. Until then, Obama had a comfortable lead nationally, as well as in most swing states. After the first debate, Romney started gaining ground, overtook Obama in the national polls, and closed the gap in the swing states. The trend in most polls has been Romney up, and Obama either down or stagnant. The second debate was an opportunity for Obama to stop the bleeding and change the trend, and while he had a better performance, it was not enough to make a difference in polling. The Romney upward trend continued. We will have to wait a day or two to find out for certain, but I do not believe debate three was a game-changer for Obama, either. Obama needed a knockout punch, and while he scored some points with petty jabs, Romney was still standing strong at the end.
In my estimation, the first debate is the only debate that really matters. Neither the second or third Presidential debates nor the Vice-Presidential debate will come close to changing the dynamic of the race in the same monumental way that the first debate did. The first debate gave the American people a suitable alternative to Barack Obama, and now they will have to make a choice. I have no idea who the American people will choose. The vast majority of the polling data – both nationally and in the swing states – is within the margin of error, meaning that both the popular vote and the electoral college vote could go either way. Bottom line: this election will be very, very close. Any prediction at this point is just an educated guess.