BOCA RATON, Fla. — There may be a presidential election around the corner, but voters won’t have two competing foreign policies to choose from at the ballot box, at least among the major parties. If Monday night’s debate proved anything, it showed that when it comes to drone strikes, the war in Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan, the intervention in Libya, support for Israel or for “crippling sanctions” on Iran, there is little difference between the two parties.
“I know that Mitt Romney tried to offer his endorsement of virtually everything President Obama did,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We accept his endorsement.”
Or, as the former Fox personality Glenn Beck put it on his Twitter page, “I am glad to know that Mitt agrees with Obama so much. No, really. Why vote?”
Only the debate’s 90-minute clock limited the ability of the two men to agree on the fundamental role of the United States in world affairs. An hour into the debate, Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops still remain, had barely been mentioned.
That left the debate one of style rather than substance, an area where President Barack Obama dominated, turning in a commanding while at times edgy performance that kept Romney on his heels. Foreign policy is not Romney’s strength — witness his gaffe-riddled tour of friendly nations this summer. But the job of the challenger, when agreement is so pervasive, is simply to come across as competent. “People just have to feel comfortable he’s presidential and in command of the facts,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a Romney surrogate, after the debate.
Romney policy adviser Lanhee Chen said the Republican’s main goal was to remain above the fray and stay calm and positive, rather than engaging in a nasty dogfight. That, he believed, was all that was required to keep the momentum that Romney gained from the first debate on Oct. 3 and which appears to have slowed but not stopped since, driving Romney ahead in national numbers and to a dead heat in key swing states like Ohio.
“Mission accomplished,” Chen said.
Obama didn’t let the broad consensus stop him from attacking Romney at every turn. “Governor Romney,” Obama said in his first response, “I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaida, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.”
Romney’s goal, meanwhile, was to paint a picture of chaos and failure in the Middle East. “We’ve watched this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see Al Qaida rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in,” Romney said. “They’re throughout many nations in the Middle East.”
Romney’s least presidential moment came when he criticized Obama for overseeing a Navy that is too small, which Romney dramatized by noting that we have fewer ships today and “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.”
Obama responded sarcastically. “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” he said, growing even more snarky. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
Romney surrogates spent much of the post-debate spin session characterizing Obama’s performance as insulting and petty.
“Romney refused to get trapped in petty back and forth,” said Chaffetz, echoing a repeated talking point from the GOP. “The president was almost looking to land personal blows.”
By contrast, Romney seemed intent on not pressing hot political buttons, most notably on the matter of the attacks in Libya, indicating that that political viability of that topic may have run its course.
Dan Senor, a foreign policy advisor to the Romney campaign, said this had been a deliberate decision.
“What he chose to do up there was to take Libya out of the back and forth and raise the issue of what it says in the macro sense,” Senor said. “It is a sign that President Obama’s foreign policy is unraveling in a number of ways.”
Instead it was Obama who found himself repeatedly raising Libya, in order to emphasize what he portrayed as his deft handling of a complex situation. Psaki, the Obama spokeswoman, said that the Obama campaign felt the discussion of Libya in the previous debate, at Hofstra, “was one of our best moments.”
One of the most contentious moments of Monday’s debate came not over foreign policy, but over Romney’s insistence that Detroit followed his prescription to its successful turnaround. It’s an audacious move, given that Romney had opposed federal assistance during the bankruptcy process, which observers of the industry say would have quickly led to liquidation of General Motors and Chrysler. Romney insisted he had supported federal help during bankruptcy for the auto industry.
“I said they need — these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. And in that process, they can get government help and government guarantees, but they need to go through bankruptcy to get rid of excess cost and the debt burden that they’d built up,” Romney said.
“You did not say that you would provide government help,” Obama challenged.
“I said that we would provide guarantees, and that was what was able to allow these companies to go through bankruptcy, to come out of bankruptcy,” Romney said, suggesting Obama and the audience read his op-ed in the New York Times closely.
“The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk,” Romney wrote in that OpEd. “In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.”
Romney, in withholding government help during bankruptcy — what he called sealing their fate with a “bailout check” — would have made it highly unlikely that the companies would have emerged from bankruptcy in a position to receive the federal guarantees.
Romney’s strategy to agree with Obama as much as possible on foreign policy left him unable to attack one of the president’s weakest points, the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Obama’s post-election surge of troops has done remarkably little to bring the war closer to an end, calling the entire strategy into question. But now that Obama has announced the eventual withdrawal of troops — a withdrawal Romney has at turns opposed and supported — Romney had little entry to challenge him.
While Romney has previously said it is unwise to lay out a timetable for withdrawal — a position Paul Ryan repeated at the most recent vice presidential debate — he embraced one Monday night. “Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014, and when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so,” Romney said, following with effusive praise of Obama’s handling of the war. “We’ve seen progress over the past several years. The surge has been successful and the training program is proceeding apace. There are now a large number of Afghan Security Forces, 350,000 that are ready to step in to provide security and we’re going to be able to make that transition by the end of 2014. So our troops will come home at that point.”
“The governor agreed with some things with the president but the agreement on some things only highlights the huge disagreement on others,” said former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, citing the defense budget as one example. “How can you be a superpower without superpower capabilities?”
Asked about one potential point of contention that Romney had opted to avoid, over whether drawing down troops in Afghanistan qualified as a savings, Sununu thought for a moment. “That’s a good point,” he said. “But it’s not a point that sways voters. Why waste your time on it?”