BOCA RATON, Fla. — At the final presidential debate at Lynn University, President Barack Obama didn’t allow Mitt Romney to turn as smoothly to the center as the former Massachusetts governor did earlier this month in Denver.
Instead, Obama quickly pointed out how Romney either agreed with the administration’s fundamental policy — on Iran, it “sounded like you thought that you'd do some things we did, but you'd say them louder and somehow that that would make a difference" — or offered a withering takedown of the governor’s plan: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said in response to Romney's demands for a larger Navy.
Still, Romney used the final debate to pivot to the center, embracing a host of foreign policy positions that fall squarely within Washington’s bipartisan national security consensus, while distancing himself from the Bush administration’s neoconservative record.
“We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan,” Romney said, sounding like a member of Obama’s National Security Council. “That's not the right course for us."
It was a somewhat awkward position for a candidate whose foreign policy team is largely made up of Bush era talent, including former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and Dan Senor, who played an intimate role in America’s bungled occupation of Iraq. But the list of policies where Romney now agreed with Obama was striking: that the president had been successful against Al Qaeda; that he would have supported the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; that he would not order a military invention in Syria; that he would hold talks with Iran, and would do everything to avoid a war; and even that the surge in Afghanistan was a “success.”
Obama didn’t let this shift go unnoticed, using a variation of these answers multiple times. “And you know, Governor Romney, I'm glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after al-Qaida,” Obama said in response to Romney’s praise of the Bin Laden hit. “And you know, I'm glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we're taking,” Obama said later about Iran. And Romney let Obama off the hook, too. “And I — I don’t blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained,” and later saying, “I couldn’t agree more about going forward.”
(Weirdly, Afghanistan was one area where Romney could have made a clear case to show a major policy failure—the most recent report card from the military points out that there were more Taliban attacks in August 2012 than there was in August 2009. “And — and we're going to be able to make that transition by the end of — of 2014,” Romney said, in what was almost indentical language to Obama’s description of his Afghan policy. “So our troops'll come home at that point.”)
The exchange of the night, however, occurred over the proposed cuts in defense spending—not even cuts, actually, just maintaining the current 700 billion dollar a year Pentagon budget, which makes up close to 50 percent of federal spending.
“The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285,” Romney said, adding. “Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947.”
“We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines,” Obama said. “And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's — it's what are our capabilities.”
It was a line that pleased Chicago, and the crowd, which erupted in laughter.
“It was an effective line, what the president was getting at [was] simply [that] counting the number of ships was not the primary or correct metric of judging America power,” Obama foreign policy advisor and former assistant secretary of defense Michele Flournoy told BuzzFeed. “This president has sustained our investment in our military he’s adapted it for the future.”
Obama also criticized Pakistan — a recipient of more than $1 billion in foreign aid a year — in quite strong language, saying that had he told Islambad about the May 2011 raid in Abottabad, the Pakistanis would have tipped off Bin Laden.
“And if we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten him,” Obama said. His advisers, though, were quick to wave away any suggestion that Islamabad might interpret his comment as an insult.
“I certainly don’t believe so,” Flournoy said, adding that the Pakistanis had blown earlier operations. “I think that based on prior experience when there have been situations where information has been shared sometimes there have been compromises.”
The question that still lingers for Chicago: was this enough to regain the momentum? There are 14 days left to find out.