Yesterday I looked at how the third debate offers President Obama his best hope for a knockout victory in this series of one-on-one match ups that has riveted much of the country over the last few weeks. But Governor Romney also has an opportunity here too, and while foreign policy has helped the President more than either the state of the domestic economy or the popularity of his health care reform, Governor Romney has some significant opportunities tonight.
Governor Romney doesn’t have to discredit President Obama’s foreign policy or win a big argument over America’s global priorities to have a good night. His goal is a simpler one and easier to achieve; he wants to complete the work he began at the first debate and continued at the Al Smith dinner. Romney has made progress in the polls by establishing himself as a qualified alternative for voters looking for a change. Romney isn’t running for wonk-in-chief or the biggest, toughest hawk in the tree. His goal is to impress swing voters that he’s an acceptable replacement for the incumbent, and to perform effectively in the debate he needs to keep that goal firmly in mind.
President Obama’s consistent strategy in this campaign has been to tie Mitt Romney to the policy legacy of George W. Bush, defined by the White House as irresponsible, pro-rich policies at home and ill-considered hawkishness abroad. Governor Romney needs to realize that if the election is a referendum on W, he loses.
Governor Romney cannot run on restoring the Bush foreign policy. There is not a groundswell of support out there for the second coming of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Romney needs to present himself as the Goldilocks candidate here: if Obama is too cool on foreign policy issues, Bush was too hot—and Romney pledges to get it just right.
Governor Romney’s task in the third debate is easy to describe, harder to accomplish. He must attack President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy without allowing the President to portray the Governor as inexperienced, testy and wild. Governor Romney wants to remind voters of Ronald Reagan; Barack Obama wants to make him remind them of George W. Bush.
If President Obama’s biggest problem in a foreign policy debate is that his grand strategy is in crisis, Governor Romney’s biggest problem is that the Obama strategy offers what most voters want. Americans are profoundly tired by the Middle East; they don’t think we can do much good over there, they don’t like or understand the region and they want to get out. If voters come to believe that Romney thinks that the problem with President Obama’s foreign policy is that the Obama White House isn’t threatening enough foreigners with war and invading enough countries and not locking the United States into enough long term expensive nation-building projects overseas, it will be game set and match for the Democrat.
Some hope to see Romney deal a series of devastating, knockout blows to President Obama tonight. Anything can happen in this wacky world of ours, but on balance that strategy is unlikely to work. President Obama has thought a great deal about his foreign policy and is well prepared to defend it. It is very hard to play foreign policy gotcha against a sitting president who is well briefed and who, whether one agrees with his policies or not, clearly knows the foreign policy terrain much better than his challenger. That is especially true when the country by and large hopes that the President is right.
Republicans today often see themselves as Winston Churchill arguing against Neville Chamberlain, but they need to remember that Chamberlain kept winning that debate politically until things reached such a point that even Chamberlain agreed that his policies had failed. Even if President Obama is as wrong about foreign policy as Neville Chamberlain was when he signed the Munich Accords with Hitler, Chamberlain was much more popular than Churchill in October, 1938 and would have crushed him in a general election.
So what should Romney do?
The main thing is that he should remember that given where the polls stand, a tie tonight is a big win for his campaign, and even a narrow loss won’t hurt. If you debate a sitting president on foreign policy and he doesn’t blow you out of the water or make you look silly, you’ve won. You’ve passed another threshold test and demonstrated that you have what it takes to perform at a presidential level on foreign affairs. The essential nature of this race hasn’t changed; there are enough voters out there who aren’t thrilled with the Obama presidency to deny him a second term—if the alternative looks credible.
To look credible you don’t have to skewer the President or make him look like a total failure, and you don’t have to show in detail how he’s done wrong. If you hold your own and land a few punches, you’ve done what you needed to do.
To accomplish that, Romney’s best strategy is to surprise the conventional wisdom and to campaign as a man of peace. John McCain made a lot of mistakes in his 2008 campaign; one of the largest was letting the Obama campaign own the peace issue. Voters in 2008 didn’t want to hear how tough and unrelenting the next president would be; they wanted to hear how the next president would work to create peace without sacrificing their security.
McCain was ideally positioned to take this approach, building on his role in helping the United States and Vietnam move beyond the bitterness of war. One isn’t tough or resolute in foreign policy for the sheer joy of toughness; one is tough to make peace and avoid war.
Voters today are still looking, reasonably enough, for a president who is more likely to promote a solid peace than to engage in endless war. Governor Romney is better off saying that President Obama is failing to build the peace he wants because foreign governments like Iran don’t credit his resolution than by saying that President Obama is wrong to seek peace with Iran. He is better off saying that President Obama can’t make enough progress in negotiations because he telegraphs weakness than to say that negotiating is wrong.
The problem with “apology tours,” Romney can say, isn’t that we don’t want good relations with former and potential adversaries. It is that by crouching and apologizing we risk misunderstanding: the bad guys will jump to the conclusion that we are in retreat and will therefore push forward in ways that force us to respond. A policy intended to promote peace can actually make the world a more dangerous place.
The governor may also land some punches if he attacks the Obama administration for rash or ill-judged interventions. Libya is exhibit A here; as a result of a hyperactive Obama administration, the governor can charge, the United States and its allies face proliferating terror threats in Libya and well beyond, and Libya has distracted us from the real challenges, humanitarian and strategic, in Syria and, increasingly, Lebanon.
The Middle East is not quieting down on Obama’s watch, Governor Romney can say, and the prospects of further, deeper American engagement are growing, not shrinking. The problem with the Benghazi attack isn’t whether the administration waffled or gave confusing explanations about what happened; the problem is that it graphically illustrates how poor White House decisions are putting Americans more at risk in the world. Overall, the President, Governor Romney can say, took a naively optimistic approach to the Arab Spring and thought that the overthrow of old despots was going to lead to the construction of American-style democracies. The White House should have been more cautious, he can say, and not rushed so quickly into situations it didn’t understand. It has been quick to support the overthrow of despots whose foreign policies aligned with the United States, but against enemies like Assad it simply utters vain and empty threats that make the United States look foolish and distracted.
In the same way, the President’s Afghan strategy offers a possible debate target. Like the noble Duke of York, President Obama, Romney can argue, marched tens of thousands of men to the top of the hill—and then marched them down again, with very little to show for the blood and treasure expended. President Obama overruled the military, chose a strategy, called this a “war of necessity” and vowed to win it. He isn’t winning it. He has no plan to win it. Rather than being upfront with the American people about the failure of his strategy, he is hiding from the press, avoiding press conferences where tough questions would be asked. His plan for Afghanistan, the war he vowed to win, has flopped, and now he wants to get out no matter what—despite all those tough speeches he made about the necessary war, and all the criticisms he made of President Bush for failing to win in Afghanistan.
The problem there, Governor Romney can say, isn’t so much in Afghanistan, but in the message it sends to the world that if you punch this President, he backs down. He’ll SAY the Afghan war is necessary and that victory is the goal, but if it is too hard he will back down and change the subject. He will SAY that Assad “must” go, but Assad stays and stays, and Obama hasn’t acted. Back and forth, hot and cold, full of big talk until something gets hard. The Iranians see this, and it stokes their hopes of making him fold on the nuclear issue. The Russians see this, and decide they should push him. The Chinese see it, and respond to his new Asia policy by stepping up the pressure on our allies, thinking that Obama will fold if the going gets tough. Assad sees it, and concludes he can go on murdering people with no worries about what Obama will do. The President thinks he is making the world a safer place, Governor Romney can say, and it is what he wants to do, but the way he goes about things is actually increasing the chances of war in both the Middle East and Asia.
On issues like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iran, Governor Romney should avoid the trap of spelling out exactly what he would do. There isn’t enough time in a debate format to lay out a full policy proposal and in any case such proposals don’t have a lot of meaning now. The world situation will certainly change between now and January 20 of next year. Successful presidential candidates in the past have avoided specific commitments while explaining to the American people how they would go about making key decisions. General Eisenhower said that he would go to Korea if elected and examine our strategy from top to bottom; Richard Nixon talked about a secret plan, details undisclosed, to end the war in Vietnam.
Voters aren’t asking Governor Romney for a 103 point plan for world peace in the debate; they want a sense of his values, his larger goals and his general way of framing and thinking about the great questions of our time. If he gets that across, and perhaps reaches out to pledge more bipartisanship in foreign policy (he can praise President Obama for having a Republican Secretary of Defense in his administration and promise to include Democrats on his national security team and reach out to Democrats in Congress), he will survive the third debate, and that, fortunately for him, is really all he needs to do.
Voters Want a Safe Pair of Hands
Governor Romney’s task will be easiest if he is arguing with the President about means rather than ends. The strongest line of attack is to say that the President has good intentions, wants the right things and has even had some important successes. He has strengthened the coalition against Iran. He has repaired relations with our European partners. He has begun an important new chapter in American foreign policy with his outreach in Asia. All these are things that voters like and can expect more of in a Romney administration.
But a combination of rash steps, loudmouthed threats without followup and windy, empty rhetoric undercuts the President’s credibility and means that he doesn’t get the peace and stability we all want.
Governor Romney should avoid getting into micro-debates about specific steps and missteps whenever possible. The President’s record leaves him with some vulnerabilities, but making these count in a debate can be tricky. Even the White House will admit that it thoroughly bungled the Israeli-Palestinian process, and at the moment neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have much trust in or respect for the President’s team. Frequent spats between the Israeli government and the White House make it tempting to attack the President for letting too much distance grow in US-Israel relations, but that charge is less easy to make stick than it might look. And in any case, while most Americans remain pro-Israel, being pro-Israel is not the same thing as unqualified support for Israeli settlement policy.
Similarly, while there are many problems with the administration’s policy choices in both Libya and Syria, making very specific allegations about specific events or statements stick in the course of a debate in front of a mass audience that doesn’t follow these things closely will be tough.
Above all, Governor Romney wants voters coming away from this debate with the impression that he would be a “safe pair of hands.” He’s tough enough to do what’s necessary, but laid-back enough not to do too much. If he’s attacking the President’s policies, it isn’t because he wants to bring Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney back inot the Situation Room. As far as possible, Governor Romney wants to impress voters tonight that a vote for him is a vote for safety, peace and a quiet life. The world is scary enough these days; Americans aren’t looking for a scary President.
[Image courtesy Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com]