The Corner

Romney Tonight

I am going to dissent from the advice of my friend Deroy Murdock and other conservatives who think tonight’s a huge opportunity to “hammer” Obama on Libya. I certainly think Romney should make his case and do what he didn’t do in the last debate: Lay out a clear and cogent critique of how Obama handled the Benghazi debacle. But all in all, I think Romney’s task for tonight is not to go for the jugular or win debating points. 

Why did Romney get such a huge surge in the polls after his first debate? Because he reassured reluctant voters that he was a plausible president of the United States. He came across as confident, likable, serious, focused on the economy and, most important for tonight’s purposes, presidential. And that should be Romney’s goal tonight: Be presidential. That means seeming steady and unexcitable. It means his criticisms should be focused on Obama’s naiveté, arrogance and ideological obsessions. But even here, less is more. Better to suggest than to “hammer.”

Foreign policy, the ostensible subject of tonight’s debate, is not as conducive to sweeping statements of ideological principle as domestic policy is these days. Americans are weary of war, wary of the Arab Spring, and fed up with many of the hassles and perceived economic hardships that come with being the leader of the world. By no means do I think Romney should back off principled disagreements with Obama. But the voters Romney needs don’t much care about winning the argument over Libya or the the war on terror generally. They want to hear (or, rather, Romney needs them to hear) why they shouldn’t be worried about Romney being commander-in-chief. That kind of reassurance comes from seeming reasonable above all else. The price for that may be to say “I agree with President Obama” more than I would like and framing things in such a way that Obama is the one who’s forced to seem un-reassuring. To that end, on Libya, like so many other issues, Romney should calmly make his case and let Obama get angry in response. 

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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