My initial take on the debate in today’s Canadian Globe and Mail concludes, like most contributions on the Corner, that Romney essentially won the debate because he succeeded in looking responsible, moderate, and presidential, and Obama did not manage to paint him as a threatening Bush-like warmonger. Indeed, as the debate wore on, while Romney was looking presidential, Obama increasingly resembled a tetchy and sarcastic challenger who sensed that his barbs were not hurting his target. Verdict: Romney wins on points.
I have not changed those judgments overnight. But they obviously conflict with the snap polls (as I pointed out in the column), and there are other aspects of the debate worth discussing. Hence these more or less random reflections:
1. How do I explain the conflict between the snap polls (a win for Obama) and my own verdict? Well, as Josh Jordan points out on the Corner today, there is a prior conflict between the headline verdict “Obama Won” and the findings in the same polls that more people favor Romney on specific questions, and are more likely to vote for Romney than for the president. That internal contradiction was present in the snap polls following the second debate too; and those polls were followed by a strengthening of Romney’s lead. How do we explain that? If we could get an explanation from those who thought Obama won a debate which nonetheless made them more likely to vote for Romney, what would they say? My guess is that their answers would center on the idea of combativeness. They thought Obama won because he was the more combative of the two candidates — which Obama plainly was last night, and less plainly last week, and not at all in the first debate. But combativeness is not an unqualified good. Depending on context it can be a brave stand or an arrogant attitude. Make up your mind which applies to last night.
2. Was Romney right to avoid Libya in the debate and, more generally, to present a mild dove-ish attitude to the foreign policy issues that came up. He was undoubtedly correct to avoid Libya. This is an issue that damaged Obama before the debate and that will continue to do so now that it’s over. Indeed, the entire Obama administration is holed below the water line on Libya. But Libyagate is also an issue more suited to congressional investigation rather than to presidential debate. Obama was expecting such an attack and undoubtedly had a strong answer ready; the inspired leaks from the CIA over the weekend had muddied the waters and complicated any attacks; and if Romney had strongly criticized the president over it, he would have been open, however unfairly, to the charge of exploiting the Ambassador’s murder for political purposes. We got a hint of this just before the debate when General Wesley Clark, acting as a nationa- security spokesman for the Obama campaign, launched a savage denunciation of Republican criticisms. He gave voice loud and clear to the next Democratic talking point on Libyagate: “Attention All Operatives: Dissent is no longer the highest form of patriotism — and it never has been. It’s now the last refuge of the scoundrel!”
3. Romney was also wise to avoid staking out bold positions on foreign policy. He was not formulating foreign policy in the debate (nor, indeed, bold new policies of any kind). Debates are not the occasion for anything bold or new or controversial or surprising or even just slightly unsettling. They are occasions for repeating what the voter already believes and associating the candidate with that belief. Converting people to bold new positions is something that candidates and parties should do in the intervals between elections or, if absolutely unavoidable, at the very start of campaigns. By the time of debates those bold new ideas should either be comfortable old platitudes or . . . totally forgotten. That was particularly true last night because Romney was bent on refuting the Democratic caricature of himself as a dangerous warmonger. His entire performance yesterday was an elaboration of Ronald Reagan’s famous retort “There you go again.” It worked very well. But it was incompatible with boldness (and also, incidentally, with combativeness.) Maybe Romney went a little overboard with invocations to peace and economic development as the answer to everything as if he were a risen George McGovern. But he realized that his task was not to make foreign policy — he’s not president yet — but to win an election, and like a good professional he concentrated on that task. He won a clear victory on that basis, establishing himself as a cool, moderate, and responsible potential president — and for that very reason he made Obama look like an alarmist at some moments and a bitter loser at others.
Hawks and others may think last night an inglorious victory. If so, it was a great deal better than a glorious defeat.
I’ll mail in other points as they occur to me — Obama’s list of mistakes in the debate looks like a rich territory.