Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 23, 2012

Incumbent Protection Plan in the Works

Out on the campaign trail, members of the House and Senate are currently getting a belly full of free speech as they fight to keep their seats. But many of those who survive would like to do something to make their next elections a bit easier and cheaper. That’s the conceit of a New York Times story about the discomfort many incumbents are experiencing as their records are being examined and often publicized. Their reaction to all this democracy is characteristic of the political class and appears to cut across party lines: suppress as much of the criticism as possible.

The problem for these politicians is that the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision unleashed the power of the public to promote political speech about elections. The fact that much of that speech is unhelpful to incumbents is a prime motivation for them to act in the next Congress to ensure that new obstacles are placed in the way of political action groups and contributors buying ads highlighting their alleged shortcomings. In this way, the Times, whose editorial agenda has been a relentless attack on free political speech, hopes that the largely defunct cause of supposed campaign finance reform will be revived. But the focus of the story on the new willingness of even some Republicans to go along with another round of “reform” reveals exactly why the court was right to invalidate large portions of the McCain-Feingold bill: the main beneficiary of the legislation isn’t free speech or the rights of the public but the protection of incumbents.

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Out on the campaign trail, members of the House and Senate are currently getting a belly full of free speech as they fight to keep their seats. But many of those who survive would like to do something to make their next elections a bit easier and cheaper. That’s the conceit of a New York Times story about the discomfort many incumbents are experiencing as their records are being examined and often publicized. Their reaction to all this democracy is characteristic of the political class and appears to cut across party lines: suppress as much of the criticism as possible.

The problem for these politicians is that the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision unleashed the power of the public to promote political speech about elections. The fact that much of that speech is unhelpful to incumbents is a prime motivation for them to act in the next Congress to ensure that new obstacles are placed in the way of political action groups and contributors buying ads highlighting their alleged shortcomings. In this way, the Times, whose editorial agenda has been a relentless attack on free political speech, hopes that the largely defunct cause of supposed campaign finance reform will be revived. But the focus of the story on the new willingness of even some Republicans to go along with another round of “reform” reveals exactly why the court was right to invalidate large portions of the McCain-Feingold bill: the main beneficiary of the legislation isn’t free speech or the rights of the public but the protection of incumbents.

From its inception in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the cause of campaign finance reform has been a futile effort to get money out of politics. But all the successive attempts to legislate limits on spending have done is to create new laws that only serve to make both politicians and parties less, rather than more accountable.

While Citizens United and the super PACs they have unleashed have been relentlessly portrayed in liberal organs like the Times as promoting corruption or undermining democracy, their real impact has been just the opposite. They have opened up the free market of ideas for both sides of the aisle, liberals as well as conservatives, helping to promote accountability. By making it easier for groups to spend money promoting their ideas and/or opposing candidates, the court has destroyed the dynamic of most congressional races in which it was virtually impossible for challengers to raise enough money to take on entrenched incumbents.

The victim of Citizens United isn’t democracy; it’s the laws and traditions of congressional politics that amounted to a near-foolproof incumbent protection plan. Incumbents are magnets for campaign contributions because everyone with a cause or an interest to be served by congressional legislation or influence wants to be in their good graces. There is no such incentive to help their challengers.

The mainstream media, which prizes its constitutionally protected right to exercise influence on elections, similarly looks askance at efforts to break up their monopoly on campaign information via campaign advertising. Citizens United has not injected more money into our political system, since money has always been — and always will be — an integral part of campaigns. Though incumbents will always have great advantages, what the High Court has done is to tilt the playing field a little bit more toward the challengers. And that’s what’s really got many of those quoted in the Times story upset. It wasn’t as the incumbents claim that the voice of the average voter is being diluted, but their monopoly on power. They want less democracy, not more.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has rightly pointed out, “the courts have said that Congress doesn’t have the authority to muzzle political speech.” But don’t expect that to inhibit politicians who would like to make it easier on themselves in 2014. Nevertheless, those Republicans quoted in the piece as favoring such limits ought to expect conservatives to remember their self-interested apostasy during the next election cycle.

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Comedian-in-Chief Warns of “Severe Outbreak of Romnesia”

I agree with Jonathan that President Obama’s “Romnesia” schtick is one of the latest signs of trouble for his campaign. Obama didn’t do as well in the debate last night as he’d hoped, so he’s back to making up puns about his opponent’s name:

“We had a severe outbreak last night,” the president said to cheers. “It was at least stage-three ‘Romnesia.’”

Obama continued, “I just want to go over with you some of the symptoms, Delray, because I want to make sure nobody in the surrounding area catches it.”

“Outbreak of Romnesia” is like one of those bumper-sticker jokes you see on the cars of overly-earnest progressive activists. But the Obama campaign didn’t put it on a bumper sticker; they put it into a speech, and somehow convinced the president read it in public, repeatedly. Maybe he could have gotten away with it if the economy was booming, but in the current atmosphere he’s not helping himself by giggling about Romnesia, Big Bird, and binders on the campaign trail two weeks out from an election. You know you’re in trouble when even Gawker is snapping at you to get serious:

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I agree with Jonathan that President Obama’s “Romnesia” schtick is one of the latest signs of trouble for his campaign. Obama didn’t do as well in the debate last night as he’d hoped, so he’s back to making up puns about his opponent’s name:

“We had a severe outbreak last night,” the president said to cheers. “It was at least stage-three ‘Romnesia.’”

Obama continued, “I just want to go over with you some of the symptoms, Delray, because I want to make sure nobody in the surrounding area catches it.”

“Outbreak of Romnesia” is like one of those bumper-sticker jokes you see on the cars of overly-earnest progressive activists. But the Obama campaign didn’t put it on a bumper sticker; they put it into a speech, and somehow convinced the president read it in public, repeatedly. Maybe he could have gotten away with it if the economy was booming, but in the current atmosphere he’s not helping himself by giggling about Romnesia, Big Bird, and binders on the campaign trail two weeks out from an election. You know you’re in trouble when even Gawker is snapping at you to get serious:

[Obama’s] inaugural address—a deeply depressing read in light of the last four years—contained a stern admonition to those who insisted on sweating the small stuff: “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises…. [I]n the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

That’s the same guy who let loose last night, in the midst of a debate that was ostensibly about how many people we are going to kill over the next four years and under what circumstances, this little nugget: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

That’s a middling joke. It should by no means be coming from the president of the United States, let alone one who promised to put away childish things. It’s a dumb “zinger,” transparently crafted to appeal to the Mark Halperins and Politicos of the world. That’s not to say that humor has no place in political rhetoric or that Obama betrays his promise every time he deigns to insult his opponent. But to graft a pre-planned VH1 Best Week Ever-level joke onto a nationally televised discussion about life and death and our role on the world stage is scarcely less pathetic than the desperate flailings of the McCain campaign that I smugly scoffed at four years ago.

If the Obama campaign is winning, why are they behaving like they think they’re losing? You can bet if Romney was out on the campaign trail warning about “Obamnesia outbreaks” and running “parody” ads about Sesame Street, pundits would say he’s in panic mode.

Most of the polls still show a very close race, and Obama is ahead in several electoral projections. But maybe the campaign knows something we don’t. Why else go so small and petty in the final days of the race, unless the tide is moving against you and you’re flailing blindly for a life preserver?

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Did Obama Leave Wriggle Room on Iran?

As I wrote last night, President Obama staked out some new ground on Iran in an effort to curry favor with pro-Israel voters by stating clearly that the only deal possible with Iran would preclude the sort of compromises on the nuclear question that the foreign policy establishment and Europe favors:

And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision, but the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.

But already we’re starting to hear people say that we shouldn’t have believed our ears when he said that. At JTA’s Capital J blog, Daniel Treiman writes that I am taking it all too literally. Apparently, when Obama says “nuclear program” he doesn’t mean the Iranian nuclear program but rather their weapons development program. While I think there’s no way to interpret Obama’s statement in any way but the way one I pointed to, I wonder if that’s what the president’s apologists will be saying if after the election, he begins talks with Iran that will allow their nuclear program to continue.

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As I wrote last night, President Obama staked out some new ground on Iran in an effort to curry favor with pro-Israel voters by stating clearly that the only deal possible with Iran would preclude the sort of compromises on the nuclear question that the foreign policy establishment and Europe favors:

And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision, but the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.

But already we’re starting to hear people say that we shouldn’t have believed our ears when he said that. At JTA’s Capital J blog, Daniel Treiman writes that I am taking it all too literally. Apparently, when Obama says “nuclear program” he doesn’t mean the Iranian nuclear program but rather their weapons development program. While I think there’s no way to interpret Obama’s statement in any way but the way one I pointed to, I wonder if that’s what the president’s apologists will be saying if after the election, he begins talks with Iran that will allow their nuclear program to continue.

Treiman backs up his argument by pointing to the fact that the president followed his statement by saying a deal would be enforced by “intrusive” inspections. Fair enough. That sounds like a reference to inspections that would supposedly ensure that the Iranians are not enriching uranium to the point where it could be used for a weapon.

However, here again the president doesn’t say weapons program. He says “nuclear program.”

There is a deal to be had, and that is that they abide by the rules that have already been established; they convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program; there are inspections that are very intrusive. But over time, what they can do is regain credibility. In the meantime, though, we’re not going to let up the pressure until we have clear evidence that that takes place.

Unlike some politicians, the president is generally fairly careful about the way he uses words. Nor, if we are to believe the Democrats who refer to him as deeply knowledgeable about every nook and cranny of foreign policy, can we believe that he doesn’t understand the difference between a reference to a “nuclear program” and a nuclear weapons program.

I will readily concede to Treiman that I doubt the president has any intention of keeping his word about preventing Iran from having a “nuclear program” should he receive a second term in office. But if he does push toward a North Korea-style deal that will be easily evaded, the record will note that it will be a direct contradiction of what he said in the debate.

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The Long-Term Harm of Obama’s Status of Forces Failure

“What I would not have had done was left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down.” So said President Obama in Tuesday night’s debate. And he was speaking the truth, as readers of Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s fine new book The Endgame can attest, even though Obama was ostensibly committed in 2011 to maintaining a continuing U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Gordon and Trainor note that Obama steadily whittled down the number of troops he was willing to keep in Iraq. Commanders wanted more than 20,000 initially, but the president eventually was willing to provide fewer than 5,000. And he insisted on such strict conditions in Status of Forces negotiations—the Obama administration demanded that the Iraqi parliament ratify any grant of immunity to U.S. troops even though there was no legal or political requirement to do so—that Iraqi leaders got a clear signal that the U.S. wasn’t committed to their country. That made them less willing to compromise in negotiations. And Obama did not give enough time to those negotiations in any case—they only began in the middle of 2011 even though the last such negotiations, in 2008, had taken nearly a year. Then, when the negotiations ran into obstacles, Obama pulled the plug and trumpeted the return of the troops.

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“What I would not have had done was left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down.” So said President Obama in Tuesday night’s debate. And he was speaking the truth, as readers of Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s fine new book The Endgame can attest, even though Obama was ostensibly committed in 2011 to maintaining a continuing U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Gordon and Trainor note that Obama steadily whittled down the number of troops he was willing to keep in Iraq. Commanders wanted more than 20,000 initially, but the president eventually was willing to provide fewer than 5,000. And he insisted on such strict conditions in Status of Forces negotiations—the Obama administration demanded that the Iraqi parliament ratify any grant of immunity to U.S. troops even though there was no legal or political requirement to do so—that Iraqi leaders got a clear signal that the U.S. wasn’t committed to their country. That made them less willing to compromise in negotiations. And Obama did not give enough time to those negotiations in any case—they only began in the middle of 2011 even though the last such negotiations, in 2008, had taken nearly a year. Then, when the negotiations ran into obstacles, Obama pulled the plug and trumpeted the return of the troops.

Obama got what he wanted—at least for the short term. He can brag to voters that he got out of Iraq. But the long-term consequences may not be to his liking—at least if he is concerned about his legacy. As retired Gen. Jack Keane, a key architect of the surge, notes in this Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Al Qaeda in Iraq has doubled in size in the year since U.S. troops left the country.” That’s not only a grave danger for the U.S. and our allies in the region—it’s also a grave danger to the long-term reputation of a president whose signature foreign policy achievement has been the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader. Osama bin Laden may be dead but, as Keane notes, al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Sinai are very much alive. Obama can’t be blamed for all of these developments—al-Qaeda affiliates were well entrenched in Somalia and Yemen before he came into office. But their growth in Libya, Syria, Sinai, and Iraq have occurred on his watch and have been spurred to some extent by his misguided policies—especially true in the case of Iraq.

Iraq may now look to Obama as a shining exemplar of his foreign policy vision. But I predict that in a few years it will be widely recognized as one of his biggest failures.

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Repeating Iraq’s Mistakes in Libya

Seth has already noted one instance where President Obama sounded positively Bushesque in the third debate. Let me note another. It was when he bragged about his intervention in Libya, saying “that we were able to, without putting troops on the ground at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq, liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years. Got rid of a despot who had killed Americans and as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying America is our friend. We stand with them.”

Like Bush in Iraq, Obama was emphasizing the liberation of an oppressed Arab country and the resulting ties of friendship with its inhabitants, but–also like Bush–he was not focusing on what came after the dictator. In both Iraq and Libya the result has been chaos. The old security services have been dissolved and nothing has taken their place. In both cases the U.S. government has given little thought—and less commitment—to Phase IV, the post-overthrow part of the operation. The consequences of this failure have been less severe in Libya than in Iraq, but they have been bad enough—witness the attack that destroyed our consulate and killed our ambassador, and the destabilizing role that militias of various stripes continue to play in Libya.

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Seth has already noted one instance where President Obama sounded positively Bushesque in the third debate. Let me note another. It was when he bragged about his intervention in Libya, saying “that we were able to, without putting troops on the ground at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq, liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years. Got rid of a despot who had killed Americans and as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying America is our friend. We stand with them.”

Like Bush in Iraq, Obama was emphasizing the liberation of an oppressed Arab country and the resulting ties of friendship with its inhabitants, but–also like Bush–he was not focusing on what came after the dictator. In both Iraq and Libya the result has been chaos. The old security services have been dissolved and nothing has taken their place. In both cases the U.S. government has given little thought—and less commitment—to Phase IV, the post-overthrow part of the operation. The consequences of this failure have been less severe in Libya than in Iraq, but they have been bad enough—witness the attack that destroyed our consulate and killed our ambassador, and the destabilizing role that militias of various stripes continue to play in Libya.

In this Los Angeles Times op-ed, I pointed out how incredible it is that we have not had a serious program in place since last year to train and arm the Libyan armed forces to control their own country. Libya, with its oil wealth, could actually pay for such a program—the U.S. could run it at a profit, as we do in Saudi Arabia. Yet Obama has failed to follow through. Instead, he prefers to boast about Qaddafi’s overthrow, while ignoring the fact that the overthrow of the old regime is only one step of many in the long road toward building responsible governance.

This is an amazing oversight from a president who came into office criticizing his predecessor’s blunders in Iraq. Now Obama is repeating the same mistakes on a smaller scale.

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Carter Visits Abbas to Sabotage Peace Talks

I’ve written over the last year about the newest phenomenon among the Palestinians and their supporters: they do not want negotiations—at all—with the Israeli government. In the past, the Palestinian leadership could at least use negotiations as a ploy to bide time or look like statesmen, and force Israeli leaders to spend their time on the Palestinian issue instead of other domestic issues.

But something changed with the speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made at Bar Ilan University in 2009, in which he declared his support for a two-state solution. And the shift has taken place, it seems, because despite the derision with which Netanyahu’s pronouncement was met by leftwing columnists, the Palestinian leadership seems to actually believe Netanyahu means it. And so negotiations have taken on a sense of historical heft they didn’t have in the age of Arafat, when everyone knew ahead of time Arafat’s answer would be no. Mahmoud Abbas has responded to the situation by adding new preconditions every time Netanyahu agrees to the last ones, in a desperate attempt to stave off peace negotiations. And now Jimmy Carter is getting in on the action.

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I’ve written over the last year about the newest phenomenon among the Palestinians and their supporters: they do not want negotiations—at all—with the Israeli government. In the past, the Palestinian leadership could at least use negotiations as a ploy to bide time or look like statesmen, and force Israeli leaders to spend their time on the Palestinian issue instead of other domestic issues.

But something changed with the speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made at Bar Ilan University in 2009, in which he declared his support for a two-state solution. And the shift has taken place, it seems, because despite the derision with which Netanyahu’s pronouncement was met by leftwing columnists, the Palestinian leadership seems to actually believe Netanyahu means it. And so negotiations have taken on a sense of historical heft they didn’t have in the age of Arafat, when everyone knew ahead of time Arafat’s answer would be no. Mahmoud Abbas has responded to the situation by adding new preconditions every time Netanyahu agrees to the last ones, in a desperate attempt to stave off peace negotiations. And now Jimmy Carter is getting in on the action.

Carter arrived in Israel this week with former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and former Irish president Mary Robinson, two other critics of Israel looking for something unhelpful to do with their time. The trio came to Israel to heap more attacks on the Israeli people, as would be expected. But they also met with Mahmoud Abbas. Did they at least suggest that maybe Abbas should consider negotiating with Netanyahu? The Times of Israel reports:

Abbas told them that he has decided to go ahead with the plan to ask the UN General Assembly to accept Palestine as a nonmember state in November. While Israel and the US fiercely oppose such a move, saying it doesn’t change facts on the ground and would preempt the outcome of future negotiations, Carter, Robinson and Brundtland wholeheartedly endorsed the plan, as it would give the Palestinians “a new stature.”

Rather than multilateral negotiations, Carter’s team told Abbas to ignore talks in favor of unilateral action opposed by the West. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu’s office pointed out the flaw in Carter’s no-negotiations strategy:

Mr. Regev pointed to Mr. Netanyahu’s 2009 speech calling for two states and said he “has repeatedly expressed his readiness for direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever in order to advance that goal.”

“Those who want to see peace advanced should be asking the Palestinian leadership why they continue to boycott the negotiations,” he said in a statement. “The prime minister has consistently initiated confidence-building measures,” he added, citing the reduction of roadblocks, the advancement of funds and the issuance of work permits, among other measures.

But Mr. Carter blamed Mr. Netanyahu for the stalemate.

“I’ve known every prime minister since Golda Meir,” he said, ticking off experiences with Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. “All the previous prime ministers have been so courageous in their own way. In the past, all committed to the two states.

I suppose it bears repeating that past Israeli prime ministers did not support the two-state solution, up to and including Yitzhak Rabin. And that Netanyahu is to Rabin’s left on a Palestinian state, borders, and even Jerusalem. And that it’s pretty difficult to come to an agreement without negotiations.

Carter’s recipe is for continued Palestinian statelessness and the end of the peace process, not to mention Mideast diplomacy in general. That’s his right, of course, but we can at least appreciate the moments like these when he makes it so explicit.

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Why Was Malala Yousafzai Missing from the Debate?

Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.

Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:

Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.

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Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.

Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:

Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.

Romney, for his part, affirmed Obama’s political deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan: “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,” he said. Regarding Pakistan, he added:

We’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met.

Romney also had the perfect opportunity during his discussion of radicalization and the Arab Spring:

A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law.

The fact of the matter is that Malala is not some contrived campaign anecdote which both candidates use to appear more down-to-earth. She is a truly powerful symbol whose very name delegitimizes the extremists. Just as Chechen jihadists saw popular support for their cause collapse when they attacked the school at Beslan, so too the Pakistani Taliban realize what a terrible mistake they have made. That neither Obama nor Romney take advantage of their mistake to embrace this symbol of resistance against Islamist tyranny reflects badly on their vision and on their commitment to win the ideological war, which may very well define the 21st century.

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Quipster Obama Playing a Losing Hand

As I wrote last night, President Obama’s attack mode during the Boca Raton debate seemed to suggest that he was the challenger trailing in the race rather than the incumbent nursing an alleged lead. But the president’s nasty streak is also displaying itself on the campaign trail, where he has been trying out one-liners about his rival like a would-be comic at open mic night at a comedy club. Last week’s big yuck was his “Romnesia” crack that alludes to the fact that Romney has changed his positions on some issues. Today, he doubled down on that one by saying Romney had “stage 3 Romnesia” at a rally in Delray Beach, Florida.

One might ask what exactly about cancer, a disease whose progress is generally referred to in stages in that manner, is so funny? But even if we are ready to give him a pass for showing bad taste, one has to question the strategy being employed here. For several months, the entire Democratic campaign seemed predicated on derision and demonization of Romney. But in the first presidential debate the GOP candidate blew that effort out of the water, changing not only the direction of the race but rendering much of the Obama campaign’s material obsolete if not completely irrelevant. Yet despite that, the president keeps playing the same losing hand aimed at denigrating an opponent who strikes most Americans as inherently reasonable. That makes one wonder whether the president’s condescending attitude as well as his sarcasm has a lot more to do with his anger at Romney’s strength and staying power than it does with any tactical political plan. More and more, it’s sounding as if President Obama is just plain mad at Romney because of the growing possibility that he’s going to lose the election.

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As I wrote last night, President Obama’s attack mode during the Boca Raton debate seemed to suggest that he was the challenger trailing in the race rather than the incumbent nursing an alleged lead. But the president’s nasty streak is also displaying itself on the campaign trail, where he has been trying out one-liners about his rival like a would-be comic at open mic night at a comedy club. Last week’s big yuck was his “Romnesia” crack that alludes to the fact that Romney has changed his positions on some issues. Today, he doubled down on that one by saying Romney had “stage 3 Romnesia” at a rally in Delray Beach, Florida.

One might ask what exactly about cancer, a disease whose progress is generally referred to in stages in that manner, is so funny? But even if we are ready to give him a pass for showing bad taste, one has to question the strategy being employed here. For several months, the entire Democratic campaign seemed predicated on derision and demonization of Romney. But in the first presidential debate the GOP candidate blew that effort out of the water, changing not only the direction of the race but rendering much of the Obama campaign’s material obsolete if not completely irrelevant. Yet despite that, the president keeps playing the same losing hand aimed at denigrating an opponent who strikes most Americans as inherently reasonable. That makes one wonder whether the president’s condescending attitude as well as his sarcasm has a lot more to do with his anger at Romney’s strength and staying power than it does with any tactical political plan. More and more, it’s sounding as if President Obama is just plain mad at Romney because of the growing possibility that he’s going to lose the election.

The president has barely contained that anger at Romney in both of the last two debates, in which he often sought to interrupt the Republican as well as talk down to him. Democrats claim this is just natural frustration at Romney’s slippery tactics as he has tacked to the center in the fall campaign. There is something to that, as there is no doubt that Romney has reverted to his natural moderation after a brief stint masquerading as a “severely conservative” candidate in the GOP primaries.

But Romney isn’t the only one who has changed his positions on some issues. Obama claims it’s a myth that he has apologized for America. But as the Washington Free Beacon noted back in August, he has done so repeatedly.

Of course, perhaps the most egregious instance of an Obama course correction that is the equal of anything Romney has ever said, is the way the president has trimmed his sails on Israel. Judging by the way he clung to Israel last night, you would never know that the president had spent his last three years fighting constantly with Israel’s government over settlements, borders and the status of Jerusalem. Nor would you know that he had deliberately snubbed Israel’s prime minister last month in an attempt to avoid pressure to support “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear program. Romnesia, even at stage 3, isn’t much worse than that.

But these inconsistencies aside, the main takeaway from the president’s campaign in an increasing sense of anger and frustration as the polls show him losing ground. There’s still time for him to reverse this trend, but one suspects trying to be the quipster-in-chief isn’t the way to do it.

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McCain: Obama’s Sarcasm “Inappropriate” and “Unpresidential”

Sen. John McCain blasted President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” zinger as “unpresidential” on a conference call this morning, saying it showed a “lack of maturity.”

“I don’t know why the president of the United States feels it’s necessary to denigrate and insult his opponent,” said McCain. “It’s not only bad taste, and, frankly, inappropriate for a president of the United States, but it’s also wrong.”

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Sen. John McCain blasted President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” zinger as “unpresidential” on a conference call this morning, saying it showed a “lack of maturity.”

“I don’t know why the president of the United States feels it’s necessary to denigrate and insult his opponent,” said McCain. “It’s not only bad taste, and, frankly, inappropriate for a president of the United States, but it’s also wrong.”

Obama said last night that America’s shrinking Navy isn’t a concern, because “we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.”

But McCain pointed out that Obama’s plan to “pivot” to Asia requires a strong naval presence, and sequestration would hinder that.

“The fact is, we will have the smallest Navy since 1914 if sequestration takes place,” said McCain. “To then justify a steady reduction in ship building shows a misunderstanding of the size of the challenge we face in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal notes that bayonets (while used infrequently) are still standard-issue weapons for U.S. Marines, and they’re trained to use them in hand-to-hand combat situations. Obama’s remark was met with criticism from some Marines on Twitter, and from military surplus outlets that sell the weapon.

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The Obama Doctrine of Revenge

It must have been strange for viewers of last night’s presidential debate to be told Mitt Romney is a dangerous warmonger and then hear him open the evening by stressing diplomacy and saying: “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” But perhaps it was stranger still for the antiwar left–or what is left of it–to hear President Obama essentially respond with his classic campaign slogan, Yes we can. Last night was something of a watershed for the president in one regard. He has always been given the benefit of the doubt on his secretive drone campaigns, so-called “kill list,” and authorizing military intervention in Libya without congressional approval.

The understanding on the left was that Obama inherited an anti-terror infrastructure and two wars. But last night, Obama gave a different answer. When attacking Romney for being cautious on Libya, Obama said:

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It must have been strange for viewers of last night’s presidential debate to be told Mitt Romney is a dangerous warmonger and then hear him open the evening by stressing diplomacy and saying: “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” But perhaps it was stranger still for the antiwar left–or what is left of it–to hear President Obama essentially respond with his classic campaign slogan, Yes we can. Last night was something of a watershed for the president in one regard. He has always been given the benefit of the doubt on his secretive drone campaigns, so-called “kill list,” and authorizing military intervention in Libya without congressional approval.

The understanding on the left was that Obama inherited an anti-terror infrastructure and two wars. But last night, Obama gave a different answer. When attacking Romney for being cautious on Libya, Obama said:

And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. You know, Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job.

Why did we have to stay in Libya until we killed (or enabled the Libyan rebel forces to kill) Gaddafi, according to the president? Because he had blood on his hands. Revenge. This is part of why the president sounded so silly at times last night. He invoked the “Bush-Cheney” bogeymen in the service of making them sound insufficiently bloodthirsty.

A good follow-up question for the president might have asked if this is now the standard. You know who else has American blood on their hands? The leadership of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the government of Iran, who were behind the murder of an American girl from New Jersey in Gaza. (Iran was found responsible in an American courtroom, to boot.) What kind of NATO mission can we expect in Gaza in the near future? And of course, that was far from the only time the Iranian leadership played a role in killing Americans; they have been waging campaigns against the American military in Iraq. Did the president signal last night an impending American invasion of Iran that won’t leave until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is dead?

Of course not. But it’s still interesting to watch the president who ran on restoring America’s moral authority justify policies he once claimed to abhor on the grounds that America must have a foreign policy of revenge. That argument has never been expanded beyond Osama bin Laden, who was thought to be an exception. But apparently he’s not. It took until the eve of the 2012 election, but Obama has finally repudiated the basis for his entire 2008 campaign for the presidency.

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Obama Acknowledges Strategy Failed

President Obama has officially been running for reelection for 18 months. His campaign and supporting super PACs have spent $770 million and counting. But now, just two weeks from election day, he’s suddenly decided to start campaigning on his second-term agenda:

Faced with persistent calls for more detail about what a second term would look like, President Barack Obama on Tuesday released a glossy, 20-page repackaging of the plans he has announced on subjects from energy to education.

Obama planned to unveil the booklet, “The New Economic Patriotism: A PLAN FOR JOBS & MIDDLE-CLASS SECURITY,” at an event in Delray Tennis Center in Delray, Fla.

The president, Vice President Joe Biden and other campaign surrogates plan to hold up the booklet at rallies as they barnstorm swing states in the final two weeks before Election Day on Nov. 6.

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President Obama has officially been running for reelection for 18 months. His campaign and supporting super PACs have spent $770 million and counting. But now, just two weeks from election day, he’s suddenly decided to start campaigning on his second-term agenda:

Faced with persistent calls for more detail about what a second term would look like, President Barack Obama on Tuesday released a glossy, 20-page repackaging of the plans he has announced on subjects from energy to education.

Obama planned to unveil the booklet, “The New Economic Patriotism: A PLAN FOR JOBS & MIDDLE-CLASS SECURITY,” at an event in Delray Tennis Center in Delray, Fla.

The president, Vice President Joe Biden and other campaign surrogates plan to hold up the booklet at rallies as they barnstorm swing states in the final two weeks before Election Day on Nov. 6.

Funny that the cutting-edge social media gurus on Team Obama are counting on a booklet to carry them through the final stretch. It’s a bit late to change the message, but apparently Obama realizes his go-negative strategy has failed in the last weeks of the campaign. Romney debunked all the summertime attack ads in a single debate, simply by opening his mouth and seeming reasonable. Now the Obama campaign realizes it actually has to present a positive alternative.

But a sudden shift like this also gives the impression of desperation, and the timing suggests that internal polling isn’t looking as good as the Obama campaign claims publicly. That would also explain the president’s overly-aggressive demeanor in last night’s debate. Maybe he knew he needed a knockout punch to change the dynamic of the race.

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On National Defense, Quantity Matters Too

No doubt, President Obama had the line of the night in the third presidential debate when he tried to dismiss Mitt Romney’s concerns about our incredible shrinking armed forces by saying:

But 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. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

Like a lot of clever debate lines, however, it grows less and less persuasive the more it is examined. Jonathan has already raised some sound objections. My own view is that while Obama is technically right–no question naval vessels today are a lot more potent than they were in 1916–he is wrong in the larger sense, if he is suggesting that quality can endlessly substitute for quantity.

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No doubt, President Obama had the line of the night in the third presidential debate when he tried to dismiss Mitt Romney’s concerns about our incredible shrinking armed forces by saying:

But 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. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

Like a lot of clever debate lines, however, it grows less and less persuasive the more it is examined. Jonathan has already raised some sound objections. My own view is that while Obama is technically right–no question naval vessels today are a lot more potent than they were in 1916–he is wrong in the larger sense, if he is suggesting that quality can endlessly substitute for quantity.

Yes, one Navy ship today can fire more munitions farther and more accurately than a whole fleet could have done at the Battle of Jutland. But the odds of such an encounter between great fleets at sea are exceedingly small. No other nation has a blue-water navy today. But that doesn’t mean that the threats faced by our navy have diminished.

Today the U.S. Navy must prepare for two major wars–one against Iran in the Persian Gulf, the other against China in the Western Pacific–while also combating piracy off the coast of Africa, dealing with unexpected wars such as the one in Libya last year, supporting ground operations in Afghanistan and other theaters, combating drug runners in the Caribbean, and showing the flag in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and other seas. The operational tempo dictated by these requirements is terrific, as I have seen for myself in the last few years in visits to the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the 7th Fleet in Japan.

The ships we have are, when not retrofitting in port, almost constantly at sea and they are struggling to keep up with threats ranging from Chinese “aircraft-killer” ballistic missiles and submarines to Iranian mines and cruise missiles–not to mention the ever-present threat of cyberattack and terrorism (of the kind which crippled the USS Cole). Yes, the capabilities of each naval ship are greater today–but so are its range of potential missions and so are the capabilities of our potential foes. China is expanding its maritime capabilities at a rapid clip; the U.S. Navy is struggling to keep up and the balance of power in the Western Pacific is shifting against us.

That is in large part why the bipartisan Hadley-Perry Commission concluded in 2010 that the Navy should have 346 ships. Yet today it has only 282 ships–and falling. As former Navy Secretary (and Romney adviser) John Lehman noted in April: “The latest budget the administration has advanced proposes buying just 41 ships over five years. It is anything but certain that the administration’s budgets will sustain even that rate of only eight ships per year, but even if they do, the United States is headed for a Navy of 240-250 ships at best.”

That is a looming strategic disaster–and one that no amount of quips about horses and bayonets can wish away. If we don’t build more ships, our global maritime dominance–the basic underpinning of the world’s strategic and economic stability–is in real danger of slipping away.

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Romney’s Clear Win

The snap polls may show a tie or a small victory for President Obama, but Mitt Romney emerged the real winner from last night’s debate. He struck the exact tone he needed to: measured, competent, presidential.

The result was that Romney often looked like the incumbent on stage, and Obama often like the challenger. While Obama tried to draw blood with small jabs (the bayonets line, the nit-picking about Romney’s investments), these made the president seem petty and contemptuous. Romney stayed above the fray.

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The snap polls may show a tie or a small victory for President Obama, but Mitt Romney emerged the real winner from last night’s debate. He struck the exact tone he needed to: measured, competent, presidential.

The result was that Romney often looked like the incumbent on stage, and Obama often like the challenger. While Obama tried to draw blood with small jabs (the bayonets line, the nit-picking about Romney’s investments), these made the president seem petty and contemptuous. Romney stayed above the fray.

The Obama campaign has alternated between claiming Romney has the same ideas as Obama on foreign policy, and accusing him of being a warmonger. Last night, the president played into the former. It’s not true, but it’s the best counter-argument Romney could have hoped for in a debate when he’s reaching out to moderate and undecided voters. While Romney stayed away from silly zingers, he managed to get in a few stinging critiques: “Attacking me is not a foreign policy”; “America has not dictated to other nations. America has freed other nations”; and “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. We should not have wasted those four years.”

Romney already trumps Obama on economic issues. Few people are voting based on foreign policy; the vast majority of voters just needed to know that Romney was competent and trustworthy on the issue. He easily met that threshold last night, which made him the clear winner.

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How Worried is Obama About the Jewish Vote? Very Worried

The overall tone of the foreign policy debate portrayed President Obama’s insecurity about the race as he swung away at Mitt Romney as if he was the challenger rather than the incumbent. But if there was any particular element of the electorate about which he seemed concerned, it has to be the Jewish vote. President Obama’s all-out effort to portray himself as Israel’s best friend and Iran’s most ardent foe showed just how desperate he is about the possibility that he will lose Jewish votes as a result of spending the first three years of his administration constantly picking fights with the state of Israel and attempting to establish daylight between its positions and those of the United States.

That the president would so emphasize Israel in the debate spoke volumes about Democrat fears about his vulnerability. Even more interestingly, he found himself staking out a position on Iran’s nuclear program that had to alarm those advocating a compromise on the issue as well as his European negotiating partners in the P5+1 process. The president didn’t endorse Israel’s calls for “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear capability as did Romney, but he did say that the only solution to the standoff involved a stand that would make the sort of compromise that realists and foreign policy establishment types approve impossible:

And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision, but the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.

The deal that the compromisers want and which seems to be in the cards if the direct talks between the U.S. and Iran that the New York Times reported over the weekend would commence after the elections would involve an agreement that would leave the Iranian nuclear program in place but have their enriched fuel shipped abroad.

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The overall tone of the foreign policy debate portrayed President Obama’s insecurity about the race as he swung away at Mitt Romney as if he was the challenger rather than the incumbent. But if there was any particular element of the electorate about which he seemed concerned, it has to be the Jewish vote. President Obama’s all-out effort to portray himself as Israel’s best friend and Iran’s most ardent foe showed just how desperate he is about the possibility that he will lose Jewish votes as a result of spending the first three years of his administration constantly picking fights with the state of Israel and attempting to establish daylight between its positions and those of the United States.

That the president would so emphasize Israel in the debate spoke volumes about Democrat fears about his vulnerability. Even more interestingly, he found himself staking out a position on Iran’s nuclear program that had to alarm those advocating a compromise on the issue as well as his European negotiating partners in the P5+1 process. The president didn’t endorse Israel’s calls for “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear capability as did Romney, but he did say that the only solution to the standoff involved a stand that would make the sort of compromise that realists and foreign policy establishment types approve impossible:

And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision, but the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.

The deal that the compromisers want and which seems to be in the cards if the direct talks between the U.S. and Iran that the New York Times reported over the weekend would commence after the elections would involve an agreement that would leave the Iranian nuclear program in place but have their enriched fuel shipped abroad.

Critics rightly point out that even if the Iranians went along with this, it would mean a situation that would be a standing invitation for Tehran to cheat its way to a nuclear weapon. Their model would follow the way North Korea hoodwinked the Clinton and Bush administrations when it was assumed that the deals they signed with Pyongyang precluded that rogue nation going nuclear.

But the president has closed off that option. He is now committed to a position that is incompatible with Iran having any sort of nuclear program. His statement also makes the Iran talks that some senior officials in his administration thought were a done deal impossible. If the president is to keep his vow to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it is clear that he is now more or less forced to accept Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position on “red lines,” since the terms of the negotiations that the Europeans have pushed in the P5+1 talks have now been ruled unacceptable.

While many in the audience focused on his bragging about a 2008 visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum (as if Romney hadn’t been there himself on his various tours of the country) and to the town of Sderot, the real news is the way the president has now ruled out any compromise on Iran.

It isn’t clear whether these pledges will erase the memory of his ongoing fights with Netanyahu over borders, settlements and Jerusalem in the minds of Jewish voters. Romney’s passionate support of Israel and his pointed reminder that the world noted that the president avoided Israel when he visited the Middle East will likely win the GOP more Jewish votes than it has won in a generation. But it’s a given that Iran was sent a signal in Boca Raton that a second term sellout of Israel on the nuclear issue was just made a lot more difficult.

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About Those Horses And Ships

At the foreign policy debate, President Obama thought he was putting something over on Mitt Romney when he acted as if the Republican was an imbecile for suggesting that the rapid decline in U.S. Naval strength was anything but a good idea:

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. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

That was quite a zinger. In one fell swoop, he portrayed the Republican as ignorant about defense issues and established himself as the competent commander-in-chief. Except for the fact that he was dead wrong and did himself far more political damage than good.

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At the foreign policy debate, President Obama thought he was putting something over on Mitt Romney when he acted as if the Republican was an imbecile for suggesting that the rapid decline in U.S. Naval strength was anything but a good idea:

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. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

That was quite a zinger. In one fell swoop, he portrayed the Republican as ignorant about defense issues and established himself as the competent commander-in-chief. Except for the fact that he was dead wrong and did himself far more political damage than good.

Contrary to the president’s assertion, the creation of aircraft carriers and submarines did not mean that we needed fewer ships. Quite the contrary. Aircraft carriers need just as many if not more supporting vessels than the obsolete battleships that no are no longer under commission. So do subs. The decline in naval strength compromises America’s ability to project power abroad. That is particularly true in places like the Persian Gulf, where President Obama is trying to sound as tough with Iran as Romney.

Even more foolish is the president’s attempt to portray contemporary naval vessels with cavalry horses. That says more about his own lack of understanding of the military than Romney’s. It also may cost him some votes in a state that he still hopes to win: Virginia, home of the largest U.S. Naval base in the country and hotbed of support for a stronger military.

One more point about those horses and bayonets. For all of his contempt for them, it bears remembering that horses played a not insignificant role in the armed forces’ successful fight in Afghanistan, a point that Obama should have remembered. The Army and the Marines operating Afghanistan still use bayonets in close combat.

The more you think about this supposed zinger, the more it sounds as if Obama made a fool of himself, not Romney.

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Obama’s Attacks Fail to Hurt Romney

Throughout the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama acted as if he knew he was behind in the race. Indeed, listening to the two men throughout the 90 minutes, it often sounded as if he was the challenger trying to chivvy the incumbent into a brawl rather than the man asking the country for four more years in office. His goal was to try and brand Romney as a reckless extremist. But try as he might, he failed to do so. Despite interruptions and attempts to turn even the points they agreed upon into disagreements, Obama wasn’t able to throw Romney off his game or embarrass him. By contrast, it was Romney that looked and sounded presidential, avoiding issues that work to the Democrats’ advantage like Afghanistan and refusing to be ruffled.

Romney stated differences with the president on the Middle East and faulted the president for being late on Syria and Iran and for apologizing for America. But on the whole his goal seemed to be to appear as a credible president rather than a fiery Obama critic. Where Obama sought to have another night of nasty scuffles like those that dominated the second debate, Romney had another goal entirely. His point was to sound knowledgeable about the issues, to talk about ideas and principles and to strike a reasonable tone even where he had strong criticisms of the president. While the Democrats keep insisting the president is ahead, he acted as if he is losing and in desperate need of a knockout punch. The absence of such a blow mixed in with a few strong moments for Romney made for a frustrating night for the president and an outcome that would have to be scored a draw on points. Judging by the president’s demeanor, it looked as if he knew that wouldn’t be enough.

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Throughout the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama acted as if he knew he was behind in the race. Indeed, listening to the two men throughout the 90 minutes, it often sounded as if he was the challenger trying to chivvy the incumbent into a brawl rather than the man asking the country for four more years in office. His goal was to try and brand Romney as a reckless extremist. But try as he might, he failed to do so. Despite interruptions and attempts to turn even the points they agreed upon into disagreements, Obama wasn’t able to throw Romney off his game or embarrass him. By contrast, it was Romney that looked and sounded presidential, avoiding issues that work to the Democrats’ advantage like Afghanistan and refusing to be ruffled.

Romney stated differences with the president on the Middle East and faulted the president for being late on Syria and Iran and for apologizing for America. But on the whole his goal seemed to be to appear as a credible president rather than a fiery Obama critic. Where Obama sought to have another night of nasty scuffles like those that dominated the second debate, Romney had another goal entirely. His point was to sound knowledgeable about the issues, to talk about ideas and principles and to strike a reasonable tone even where he had strong criticisms of the president. While the Democrats keep insisting the president is ahead, he acted as if he is losing and in desperate need of a knockout punch. The absence of such a blow mixed in with a few strong moments for Romney made for a frustrating night for the president and an outcome that would have to be scored a draw on points. Judging by the president’s demeanor, it looked as if he knew that wouldn’t be enough.

Obama had a point when noted that Romney was sounding a lot more moderate than he had earlier in the campaign. On Afghanistan, Romney, Paul Ryan and many other Republicans have taken issue with the president’s decision to set a firm deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops since it means the Taliban need only hang on until 2014 before attempting to retake the country. But in Boca, Romney punted on the issue, conceding that there would be pullout. That may not be what most in the GOP think, but it shows that Romney knows that when an issue is a political loser he will bail on it. Most Americans don’t want any part of more fighting in Afghanistan no matter what the cost, and the GOP candidate signaled he has no interest in pushing the point. The same seemed to be true of the Libya terrorist attack. Having failed to make a dent in the president on this weak point last week, he seemed to concede that he could only do himself harm by raising it again.

But it should be pointed out that Romney wasn’t the only one looking to airbrush history. Obama speaks as if the first three years of his administration in which he fought constantly with Israel never happened. He sought to compensate for that with fervent rhetoric about Iran, but it showed Romney wasn’t the only flip-flopper on the stage.

That may sound like a waffle, but at times Obama overreached in his efforts to attack Romney. His attempt to score points with cheap shots about Romney’s investments in China fell flat. Even worse was his rejoinder to Romney’s criticisms about the decline in U.S. naval strength when the president compared U.S. naval ships to the horses the army used to employ. That may have gotten a guffaw from those ignorant about the military but, as even some of the talking heads on CNN conceded after the debate, that foolish jape may have cost the president any chance of winning Virginia (home to the largest naval port in the world) in two weeks.

It is true that for the most part Romney seemed to avoid strong disagreements with the president or to merely give slightly different takes on the issues while remind the audience of his strength on the prime issue of the economy. But I doubt that many Republicans were disappointed with his behavior. His approach seemed rooted in a belief that what he needed to do in this debate was not so much score points at Obama’s expense but to seal the deal with the voters and demonstrate that he was ready to lead the country. The first debate turned the race around because Romney showed he wasn’t the caricature that Democrats had painted him as being. The Republican’s thoughtful, low-key approach in the third debate only reinforced that key point. Based on the president’s reaction, it looks like Afghanistan isn’t the only point on which the two agree. Both seem to think Romney’s ahead.

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