The conventional wisdom is that President Obama had a terrible first debate, and it was certainly borne out by the polls, which have given a huge boost to Mitt Romney’s prospects of winning the presidency (how much of this tightening would’ve happened anyway we’ll never know). The fact that Romney won while lying through his teeth for 90 minutes seems not to matter much in this era of post-truth politics.
Fortunately, Vice-President Biden came back strong the following week and showed voters how out of his depth Paul Ryan is, and how horrible are his policy ideas. The President then delivered a stellar performance last week at the Town Hall debate, regaining momentum and winning the night.
Tomorrow night brings us to the final debate, which is on foreign policy. If ever there was a topic for which Obama should finish strong it is this. Despite decades of Republican advantage in the foreign policy arena, this time Obama and the Democrats have the upper hand. Not only do Romney and Ryan have zero foreign policy experience between them—making them perhaps the least qualified duo on this front in generations—but President Obama is extremely accomplished in this area. He ended the Iraq War and is in the process of ending the Afghanistan War. He killed Osama bin Laden and decimated al Quaeda. In addition, he’s ushered in the most effective Iranian sanctions ever (which are crippling the Iranian economy), he’s largely contained North Korea, he helped NATO end the Qaddafi regime, and he’s achieved a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia.
The President can claim with confidence that he has kept America safe and made tremendous progress against our enemies. America is more respected in the world since he took power, and the world is freer and more democratic.
Governor Romney, on the other hand, has so many wild ideas about foreign policy that it’s tough to know where to begin. The first thing to realize (which I expect and hope the President will point out) is that the overwhelming majority of Romney’s foreign policy advisors are former Bush Administration officials. While Romney has been careful not to tie himself to many of Bush’s former domestic policy advisors, his foreign policy team is largely comprised of the same neocons that got us into so much trouble during Bush II.
Romney has also cited Russia as our greatest strategic threat, which is ridiculous on multiple levels. He’s on record as having stated that he would not violate Pakistan’s sovereignty in order to kill bin Laden, and that we shouldn’t “move heaven and earth” just to get one man. President Obama can credibly state that if Romney had been president, bin Laden would likely still be alive. Romney’s overseas trip a couple months ago, when he insulted the British and made repeated gaffes, certainly didn’t help his cause.
His recent politicization of the killing of American diplomats in Libya has been disgraceful. At the Town Hall debate, Obama expressed open contempt for the Romney suggestion that his administration “sympathized” with the terrorists. Hopefully, the president will continue to hammer Romney on this point (and repeat his great line from a “60 Minutes” interview a few weeks ago, that Romney tends to shoot first and aim second).
Perhaps most damning, Romney seems intent on starting a war with Iran and being little more than a rubber stamp for the extremist wing of Israel’s foreign policy establishment. President Obama has taken great care not to upset his Jewish constituency, and I expect him to emphasize his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security; at the same time, I also expect him to make clear that diplomacy must take precedence over saber-rattling, and that any military action is only a last resort.
The President needs to thread this needle, to effectively point out his many foreign policy achievements, and to point out that Romney’s foreign policies come from extremist Bush holdovers. If he can make these points, a decisive debate victory should be assured. This will give Obama the momentum he needs as we enter the final two weeks of the campaign.