The trajectory of the U.S. presidential race did not change Monday night. Not substantively, in a debate that featured Mitt Romney’s constant endorsements of Barack Obama’s policies. (For instance, on the question of aggressive drone strikes against suspected terrorists: “I support that entirely and feel the President was right.”) And probably not politically, given that foreign policy is a low priority for most voters and that the debate lacked a breakthrough moment that will hound one candidate or the other for days.
Whether tonight has some marginal difference depends on what you think matters. Republicans argue, not implausibly, that Romney’s goal was to sound presidential, versed in the issues and worthy of being trusted with the nuclear football. Unstated, but obvious from Romney’s almost John Lennon–like performance, was his goal of refuting Obama’s charge that he wants to start new wars and extend existing ones. Doing so — on Iran, Afghanistan and Syria — forced Romney into constant agreement with Obama. But it also enabled him to dodge the Dick Cheney Halloween mask that Obama would love to pull over his face. “We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan,” Romney said.
Romney may have passed that test, but he failed to indict Obama’s policies or draw a clear contrast with his own. One reason was that Obama enjoyed a structural advantage and used it well. He invoked his almost mystical power as Commander in Chief — a rhetorical shortcut to credibility on the military, terrorism and dramatic calls like the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Romney lacked any counter with remotely the same punch.
Stylistically, Obama was also more often on the offensive — even if he sometimes seemed to find his own zingers a mite cheesy. (“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” a quip in response to Romney’s view that Russia is our top geopolitical rival, sounded like a tossed-off tweet and Obama knew it. Russia, incidentally, really does cause us a lot of problems, mostly through its U.N. Security Council veto power.)
(Photos: Political Photos of the Week, Oct. 12-18)
Huge swaths of ground went mostly or entirely uncovered: the nature of the new Iraq. The wisdom of cutting a peace deal with the Taliban. Nuclear nonproliferation. Africa, Europe, Latin America. Torture, detention, surveillance, cybersecurity. Tellingly, the candidates repeatedly veered into the thick of domestic politics and the economy — a sign that both campaigns understand foreign policy won’t decide this election. At one point it seemed possible that Obama was going to trumpet Lilly Ledbetter, while Romney at one point declared, “I love teachers!” And a question on China revolved around not Obama’s strategic pivot to Asia, or Beijing’s dispute with Tokyo over a string of oil-rich islands, but trade law and the auto bailout (on which Mark Halperin is right to call Romney’s answer “rambling, confusing, defensive.”) Translation: a duel for voters in all-important Ohio. The world will have to wait on Cuyahoga County.