Candidates clash on foreign policy
Mitt Romney affected another major transformation last night, morphing from a hawk who less than a year ago suggested that if the US wanted peace it must prepare for war to Mr Romney the peacenik and advocate of civil society, promising not bombs but development aid, challenging Barack Obama from his left flank when he said "we can’t kill our way out of this mess" in the Middle East.
It was the same manoeuvre Romney executed in Denver on October 3rd, the same rush towards the elusive undecided and independent voters at the political centre, adapted from domestic to foreign policy.
This time, Mr Obama was ready for it, repeatedly saying he was glad the former governor had seen the light, all the while pointing out that Romney had been "all over the map".
If the president won on points, as most pundits agreed, Mr Romney was the smoother, more congenial salesman, peddling simple, safe change with a paternalistic smile. "We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam… reject this radical violent extremism," he said. Nice work if you can get it.
On the 'spin room' floor, surrogates for both candidates claimed victory. "The whole evening, the president was a strong commander-in-chief," said David Axelrod, senior advisor to Mr Obama.
"On foreign policy, it’s a very clear choice between a decisive, clear leader and a guy who keeps changing and who looks backward."
"I thought it was a great night for Mitt Romney," said Republican Senator Rob Portman, who has played the role of Obama in practice debates. "Mitt Romney sounded like the guy who was ready to be commander-in-chief."
No one predicted the debate would break Romney’s momentum in the polls. "We said from the very beginning 18 months ago that this was going to be a close election," said Jim Messina, Mr Obama’s campaign manager. "We have a much bigger ground operation. It’s all about leadership. You saw a strong and sturdy Barack Obama. That’s why tonight was a good moment."
"We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan," said Mr Romney the peacenik, eager to reassure those who are alarmed by his Bush era neo-conservative advisors. The new Mr Romney even quoted "Arab scholars… organised by the UN" when he recommended "more economic development… better education… gender equality… the rule of law… to help these nations create civil societies."
Mr Obama chided Mr Romney for calling Russia a geopolitical threat. "The Cold War’s been over for 20 years," he noted. "When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s."
The president called Mr Romney out for saying he did not want to repeat the Iraq war. "But just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq now… Every time you've offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite the fact there were no weapons of mass destruction."
He criticised Mr Romney for opposing nuclear arms treaties with Russia. "You said…first… we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies."
Mr Romney sat with his hands folded and wore a persecuted smile. "Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East," he said.
Mr Romney accused the president of "wearing rose-coloured glasses when it comes to Russia" and alluded to the time Mr Obama told Vladimir Putin over an open mic that he would have more flexibility after the election.
Mr Romney’s promise to convert Islamic extremists to American values may have sounded alluring, but Mr Obama spoke more realistically. "We can’t continue to do nation-building in these regions," he said. "Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation-building here at home."
In the same, practical vein, Mr Obama said "Syrians are going to have to determine their own future… For us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step, and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us."
Mr Romney said removing Assad was "a very high priority" because he is Iran’s only Arab ally. But for the first time, moderate Mitt explicitly foreswore US military involvement.
He thought it would be possible to depose Bashar al-Assad and foster a new, pro-American government if Washington ensures the rebels receive the arms they need from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Pie in the sky.
Mr Romney agreed with Mr Obama that the US could no longer support Hosni Mubarak "who had done things that were unimaginable". But he wanted to “step back” and talk about the US mission in the Middle East "because our purpose is to make sure the world is more peaceful. We want a peaceful planet."
Asked how he would reconcile promises to increase the defence budget and reduce the deficit, Mr Romney said he would start by repealing Obamacare. "We take programme after programme that we don’t absolutely have to have, and we get rid of them."
Mr Obama pointed out that defence spending has risen throughout his term in office. Mr Romney insisted he could add $2 trillion in military spending and still balance the budget. The navy was smaller than in 1917; the air force the smallest it has been since 1947.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works," Mr Obama said. "You mentioned the navy, for example, that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets… We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines." It was brutal but effective sarcasm. The media room erupted in laughter.
Mr Obama evaded a question from the moderator, Bob Shieffer of CBS, whether he would declare an attack on Israel to be an attack on the US. "Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel," Mr Obama said. His disagreement with Mr Romney, he continued, was that "during the course of this campaign, he’s often talked as if we should take premature military action (against Iran)."
Mr Romney then unravelled years of his own anti-Iranian bluster, saying that "our mission in Iran…is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means." He proceeded to outline a policy similar to Mr Obama’s, but with the indictment of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for "incitation to genocide" thrown in for good measure. Iran perceived the Obama administration to be weak, he repeated. "We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran".
"I’m pleased that you are now endorsing our policy of applying diplomatic pressure and potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear programme," Mr Obama said. "But a few years ago you said that’s something you’d never do."
Mr Romney rejected the idea that labelling China a currency manipulator would lead to a trade war. "Well, they sell us about this much stuff every year," he said, holding one hand high, "And we sell them about this much stuff every year," he said holding the other hand much lower. "So it’s pretty clear who doesn’t want a trade war."
When Mr Romney accused China of stealing American jobs, Mr Obama retorted: "You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas… If we had taken your advice… about our auto industry, we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China."
Mr Obama then accused Mr Romney of "trying to airbrush history" regarding his own opposition to the bailout of the auto industry.