Both parties agreed upon the terms and rules for the presidential debates. But right now, the Obama campaign has to be kicking itself for going along with a schedule that devoted the last of the three encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney to foreign policy. The Democrats have acted as if security and defense issues were a strength for them throughout the year, but it’s doubtful that the president thinks a foreign policy pitch is his best closing argument for the American people with only a couple of weeks left before the election.
That’s not just because the Benghazi terror attack has compromised the president’s stance as the man with an impeccable security record, but also because a debate that doesn’t allow him to deploy his class warfare and “war on women” themes is one that isn’t likely to help him pick up the votes he needs to secure re-election. Even worse, it gives Romney an opportunity to recoup his losses from the last debate in which he flubbed a question on Libya that he should have been able to use to hammer the president. While Democrats may hope the president repeats his aggressive performance from the second debate rather than his lackluster first debate, Monday night’s topic is a handicap that comes at just the moment when he needs a game changing victory to reverse Romney’s momentum.
The Obama camp is acting as if the president’s bout of righteous indignation during the Hofstra University debate at the notion that he and his foreign policy team would “play politics or mislead” the public about Libya closed the topic for future discussion. It was a powerful rhetorical moment, but it won’t shut off discussion about the fact that that is exactly what he and his associates did. Having the third debate devoted to foreign policy helps Romney re-open the issue. It will allow him to argue that the weeks the administration devoted to claiming the murder of the ambassador was merely film criticism run amuck were closely linked to the president’s campaign theme in which Osama bin Laden’s death has been represented as a conclusive victory over al-Qaeda. Even if, due to Romney’s inept grasp of the narrative and moderator Candy Crowley’s intervention, Obama won the point on Tuesday night, he’s not likely to be able to squirm off the hook next week. The Libya incident’s political importance is that it dishes the president’s main foreign policy theme because it shows that the war on terror (a Bush-era phrase banned from use by the White House) is not over.
The foreign policy debate works for the president in one respect in that it will allow the president to continue running against his predecessor. Obama has spent most of this year running as much against George W. Bush as he has against Romney, and his pose as the man who ended the war in Iraq and will do the same in Afghanistan is a potential strength. This will force Romney to walk the same fine line on Afghanistan that Paul Ryan had some trouble with in the vice presidential debate. The GOP is right to argue that the pullout deadline set by Obama will hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But Romney can’t speak as if he wants U.S. troops to remain there indefinitely since few Americans are happy about that prospect.
However, the next debate will also expose Obama to more criticism of his record on the Iranian nuclear threat. Romney should be ready to pounce if the president repeats anything resembling Vice President Biden’s wildly inaccurate claim that the Iranians are not enriching uranium for a nuclear weapon. This will also help Romney differentiate his position on the alliance with Israel, which the president has sought to downgrade by putting more daylight between the two countries’ positions on the peace process than on the Iran threat.
Yet while both sides will have opportunities to score points on Monday night, the topic will still deprive the president of issues on which he has a clear advantage over Romney. Without the ability to raise social issues or to take cheap shots at Romney’s wealth, Obama will find himself on equal ground with his challenger. Given the way the race has shift toward Romney in the last weeks and with no other major opportunity to alter the course of events before Election Day, that is very bad luck indeed for the Democrats.