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.