Will Romney win the election by losing the last debate?
I felt as deflated as a balloon with a slow leak as I sat there at Romney HQ last night watching the Mittster do his imitation of Barack Obama in the first debate.
Obama's eminently vulnerable record in foreign policy went largely unchallenged. When the president talked about not supplying arms to foreign countries, no reference was made to Fast and Furious. I did not hear a word about the habit the Leader of the Free World has of abasing himself- and thereby the country- before kings and dictators upon meeting them. Hugo Chavez's endorsement of Obama was unmentioned, as was the incident of the Churchill bust, the snubbings of the Dalai Lama and of Bibi Netanyahu, or even the Benghazi debacle. World leaders, who disliked President Bush, see President Obama as a non-entity, as somebody not to be taken seriously. But no attempt was made by Governor Romney to point that out.
President Obama was allowed to get away with bloody murder, repeatedly misrepresenting statements Governor Romney had made about everything from Obama (as moderator Bob Schieffer regrettably called him) bin Laden to the distinction between a strategic threat and a security threat to the Republican nominee's position on a time-table for withdrawing from Afghanistan. POTUS even tried to talk his way out of having himself sought an agreement which would have allowed American troops to stay longer in Iraq than they did. Romney did call him to task for that piece of historical fiction. But I wanted to jump down the president's throat myself- all the way from Iowa- when the commander-in-chief sneered that his opponent's position was that America should be saying and doing exactly what the Obama administration was saying and doing, "only saying it louder."
Not a peep of objection from Romney. And when Schieffer cut Romney off in his attempt to respond to a particularly egregious package of baloney by saying that he- Romney- also had spoken out of turn, the Republican meekly smiled and said, "You're probably right about that."
I started to think, "You've won, Mr. President. By default, but you won. Take a bow. After all, you'll do it the next time you meet a foreign head of state anyway, no matter what international protocol says." But something stopped me from quite believing it.
It was a comment some talking head had made prior to the debate- I don't remember who, or even where- to the effect that Romney's job was to look presidential without being nasty. And despite my disappointment with his performance, the fact of the matter is that Romney did exactly that.
Something has come to pass which would have seemed impossible before these debates: Romney is now seen favorably by more voters than see Obama favorably. Personal likability was Mr. Obama's strength. But even as the average American voter has dropped the negative vision of Romney as a heartless, plutocratic demon carefully crafted by the Democrats and their acolytes in the media over the past several months in favor of the decent, compassionate, reasonable, and very human man they've finally had the chance to see and hear with their own eyes and ears, the president has managed to change his own image to that of an ill-tempered, disrespectful, and just plain nasty jerk.
And if Romney's main task last night was to establish his own foreign policy bona fides, well, mission accomplished. The fact is that nobody who listened with even a halfway open mind to last night's debate can doubt that Romney knows his stuff. He demolished any doubts voters might have had, given his lack of foreign policy experience, about his ability to conduct American foreign policy. Even the president was reduced to carping about often imaginary discrepancies between Romney's past and present positions (funny how sticking to your guns in the face of changing information and circumstances was a bad thing when Dubyay was in the White House!) without saying very much at all that was critical of the substance of the Romney foreign policy.
How could he? His line of attack was essentially that there was hardly any differences at all! Not true, of course. But for the president to take that tack was just fine, from Romney's point of view. All the better to keep the focus on the one issue that Romney did attack the president on last night, and attack him repeatedly, even in a debate on foreign policy: the economy.
In fact, I was actually a little disappointed when Governor Romney responded to President Obama's statement that terrorism was the number-one threat to our national security by saying that no, the prospect of a nuclear Iran was. I would have liked for him to have said "the deficit-" a position which he could not only have defended quite easily, but done so to the president's cost.
Romney was a gentleman last night. Obama, on the other hand, did his personal favorability rating no favors. And this morning, I came across what seems to me to be a remarkably insightful piece by veteran White House reporter Keith Koffler, who thinks that Romney may very well have struck a "knockout blow" by using a strategy of political "rope-a-dope:"
Everyone – including me – thought Romney would tear into Obama once again and engage in another slugfest, spending as much time as possible discussing the failures surrounding Benghazi. Instead, Romney completely walked away from Benghazi.
What Romney needed tonight was not to beat up on Obama – he had already proven he could do that – but to cast himself as a leader people will be comfortable having as their president.
He threw some jabs, but the knockout punch wasn’t delivered by fist, but by feint.
Romney stood tall while Obama appeared a little surly, eager to re-litigate domestic policy points that the two had already plowed through in two debates. By repeatedly demeaning Romney, Obama demeaned himself. The proverbial Martian visiting earth for the first time would have been convinced that Romney was the king the earthlings, not Obama.
And perhaps because of a deliberate policy of restraint and dignity, if a little green man lands on the Mall sometime next February and says, "Take me to your leader," the man they take him to might well be Mitt Romney.