Debate Strategy


The third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney was little more than political theater and an extension of their respective campaigns.  It was certainly not a careful, substantive discussion of foreign policy.  Nor did it involve anything even approximating a studied engagement upon the headline issues recently surfacing over events in Benghazi.  I for one was surprised by this. I expected a slugfest, with allegations of lackadaisical national security and obvious cover-up.

There are many meaty questions of foreign policy which could have been addressed in the debate last night, but they were conspicuously absent.  Questions such as the following come to mind: 

  • Should captured terrorists be read Miranda rights?  If "yes," then why should they as non-citizens be treated the same way as Americans? On the other hand, does lack of citizenship status mean that they are not entitled to any constitutional guarantees when tried in this country?  Or, better still, should they not be tried in military tribunals instead of American criminal courts?  


  • Is torture of an enemy combatant ever morally justified? The suffering of one person compared to the anticipated suffering of hundreds of thousands (but for the fact that information is extracted through torture) is far from a black and white moral issue. It may well constitute what the great philosopher William James would have called a forced, living, and momentous option.


  • Should American policy be one of supporting free elections when doing so will likely result in an illiberal democracy?  Many tend to believe that a ruthless dictator who is relatively friendly to the United States serves our own national interests better than a democratically-elected Hugo Chavez, for example, who opposes us at every turn. 


  • What are the reasons for the immense animosity against the United States in the Arab world?  Is it simply that radical Islamists do not like the American way of life or that they hate Christianity?  That may be an oversimplification. Some thinkers, like Fareed Zakaria, believe this hostility has to do primarily with the stark perception in the Arab world that the United States sponsors and supports the political oppression of Arabs. The primary example of this oppression is of course America’s wholehearted support of Israel in the face of its cruel and inhuman treatment of Palestinians.

Nothing like these issues was so much as mentioned.  Before concluding that the moderator’s questions did not lend themselves to a discussion of these and other such matters, please remember that each candidate has his talking points, which he introduces into a debate at will. This is a fact; we have seen it time and again.  Yet Mitt Romney scrupulously avoided doing so and, because of this fact, Barack Obama experienced frustration attempting to line up his targets.

Mr. Romney’s purpose last night was, purely and simply, not to venture into the intricacies of foreign policy.  He knew that the preponderance of the American people would have found him an insufferable bore had he done so.  Furthermore, most citizens, I dare say, do not so much as know where Libya and Syria are, much less what is happening in those countries.  The 23 million citizens who are without jobs could not care less about the prevailing circumstances in these places. The Governor therefore chose to use the debate for cosmetic purposes -- to appear serious and presidential.  He wanted to avoid coming across to millions of Americans as a "Bush-Cheney" saber-rattler; therefore, he studiously refrained from saying anything which might have given voters the slightest impression that he is a bellicose and irresponsible war-monger.

Governor Romney was content to play it safe by staying with his campaign game-plan, i.e., by continuing to emphasize jobs and the economy while appearing fundamentally knowledgeable on foreign policy and refusing to give President Obama much to shoot at without appearing petty and unpresidential himself.  One might conclude that the Governor believes himself ahead on the scoreboard (or in the polls) and so, adopting a strategy befitting Peyton Manning, decided to run down the clock by "taking a knee." 

If the debate last night proves memorable, it will not be because of anything that either candidate said.  It will be attributable to the shrewd strategy that Romney adopted.  Since he is leading in the polls, he decided to force the President to become the aggressor.  Because the challenger painted issues with such a broad and generally innocuous brush throughout the debate, and managed to align himself closely with the administration's own positions,  Obama's criticism of Romney tended at times to be captious, carping, and unpresidential.  He resorted, for instance, to commenting upon the irrelevant matter of Romney’s investments in China when the issue on the table had to do with the dire possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. The President likewise began incessantly interrupting the Governor when the discussion turned to trade relations with China.  This proclivity seemed to reflect the President’s despair and to diminish his likeability.

I did not like Governor Romney's strategy.  I see it as contrived and cynical.  I desired a two-fisted exchange between the two men.  Yet I predict that the Governor's performance will not influence the outcome of this election.  Here’s the long and short of it:  President Obama may have won this debate, but it did nothing to enhance his image as President,  nor to convince the American people that he is entitled to four more years in office. If anything, it was a Pyrrhic victory for him.   The momentum remains on the Governor's side, at least for now.  He is, like it or not, cruising to victory.

October 23, 2012