Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obama-Romney III:
The president and the chameleon ghost

WHO’D HAVE believed that, on the same night as Monday Night Football and the deciding game of the National League Championship Series, the best thing on television last night was a presidential debate?

True enough; the third presidential debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Republican-in-chief — the third episode of Barack & Mitt — had its dramatic moments, but much of the drama was accidental. It was the result of a candidate who ran headlong into a president with the experience of being what the candidate wants badly to be. But mostly it was the drama of a man who finally, publicly, absolutely ran into the ethical emptiness that is himself.

Last night, in spectacular fashion, in front of the people of this country and the world beyond, for the last time before the election two weeks away, Mitt Romney created his last Etch a Sketch portrait of the Mitt Romney he wants the American people to believe in on Election Day. Who’d have believed that portrait looks like Barack Obama?

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We knew going in that last night’s debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., had the potential to be definitive, maybe even dispositive. Romney’s own post-debate surge, two weeks on, had managed to continue despite the headbutting the governor got in the second debate. And the president’s numbers were as strong as they’ve been in weeks, faltering a little but only to the point where it narrowed the lead he already enjoyed.

The moderator, the no-bullshit veteran CBS News Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, brought questions on foreign policy. In short order, with response after response, it became clear that the fire-breathing, severely conservative Mitt Romney of the primary season and earlier this fall season was trying to morph into Moderate Mitt, his guise for the general election campaign (and a costume he put on months too late).

On Syria, the president reiterated the value of a sanctions regime intended to pinch the leadership in Damascus, a sanctions process not unlike that used against Libya in the waning months of the Gaddafi regime. That would be combined with humanitarian assistance, consultation with partners in the region, and a firm resistance to American boots on the ground.

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ROMNEY AGREED. “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. … We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict,” he said. “The right course is working with our partners ...”

On Egypt, when Schieffer asked the president about our hopes for the newly democratic Egypt, Obama called for the new Morsi government to recognize the rights of women, acknowledge religious tolerance, continue counter-terrorism efforts, and to abide by its peace treaty with Israel.

Romney lamented the timing of the American response to events in Egypt and the viral, panoramic unrest that led to the Arab Spring. But ultimately, Romney agreed with the president. “I believe as the president indicated that and said at the time that I supported his action there,” he said, actually ascribing the origin of American myopia vis-à-vis U.S.-Egyptian relations to a period before the Obama administration.

“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president's term and even further back than that, that we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world and that we would have worked more aggressively with our — our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government such that it didn't explode in the way it did. But once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did …”

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On the United States’ frenemy relationship with Pakistan: “I don't blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We had to go into Pakistan; we had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do.” Romney agreed.

Romney conflated Iran with the killing of Osama bin Laden by way of congratulating the president for taking him out: “Of course, the greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon. And — and we're going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done. I congratulate him on — on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida.”

On security for Israel, Romney said: “I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.” Romney agreed with the president.

And on Afghanistan, the mutha of all our foreign entanglements, the king of the ethical Etch a Sketch reversed his previous position in front of more than 55 million people and endorsed the Obama White House timeline for the United States’ exit from the Afghan War. “Well, we're going to be finished by 2014. And when I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so.”

This is a complete 180 from positions Romney took, publicly, more than once, in a variety of high-profile campaign events between earlier this year and earlier this month.

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WHAT HAPPENED last night was the breathtaking unraveling of a political campaign from the top down, in real time, on prime time — a willful shattering of the basic policy distinctions between his campaign and the president’s.

After the debate, Romney operatives were spinning faster than any centrifuges in Iran. Some characterized Romney’s statements that evening in the context of an “evolution” or a “revision” of previous thinking. They couldn’t be more wrong.

On some pressing matters of foreign policy, there’s apparently not much more than an inch of daylight between Romney and Obama. The distinctions Romney did have with Obama on several issues — dealing with Egypt, isolation of Iran, sanctions against Syria, the centrality of Israel in U.S. geopolitical calculations in the Middle East — are mostly matters of nuance and degree, not an outright divergence of opinion.

What we saw last night wasn’t an evolution, it was a lurch from one lane to another in search of an exit ramp. It was a blatant, desperate, hamfisted bid to shift to the political center, where most Americans are. But the more Romney moderated his positions last night on just about everything tied to foreign policy, the more he revealed how much he said he and the president have in common, the more he disavowed his own campaign’s reason for being.

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Except when there was daylight between them — acres of it, and something the president didn’t let Romney forget.

These self-inflicted wounds were compounded by another, one that the president made memorable use of last night. Romney’s frequent use of the word “leadership” indicates a definition in Manichaean, cold-war terms, with easy, state-obvious polarities of west and east, good and evil. It follows, then, that his interpretation of a “strong” America is as a nation bristling with weapons — the global presumptive general.

For Romney, it’s all about the volume, the money to be spent; he’s more concerned with the number of warships rather than their capability, what they cost rather than what they can do.

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WE KNEW that when Romney said this last night: “Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.

“Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We've changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we've always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we're changing to one conflict.

“Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars ... That, in my view, is, is, is making our future less certain and less secure. I won't do it.”

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Obama couldn’t disagree more, or more convincingly. “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — because the nature of our military's changed.

“We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's, it's [about] what are our capabilities?”

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AND ON top of everything else, the presidential optics for Romney were bad. He flubbed the identities of Iran and Iraq. He momentarily confused Bashar al-Assad with Kofi Annan, for God’s sake. The former governor was passively but visibly flustered all night, his syntax disjointed, his delivery unconvincing.

And here’s a Kennedy-Nixon moment for you: for much of the debate, Romney’s skin revealed the unmistakable sheen of perspiration. Flop sweat, especially on his upper lip. Talk-radio host Stephanie Miller said he was “sweatin’ like a whore in church.”

His attempts at looking sage just made him look silly. “Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world,” he said. “It's their route to the sea.” Cartographers will be astounded to discover that, in the Romney World Atlas, Syria and Iran are juxtaposed — despite ample evidence (on any map) that the two are separated by about 250 miles of … Iraq.

Syria, Iran’s route to the sea? You mean the Mediterranean Sea that lies next to Syria?

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THE FOCUS of this blogpost is deliberately less about how President Obama won the debate — and he did, finishing the fight that started in Denver, pummeling Romney in this last third of the bout — than it is about how Romney lost it. For good reason. Romney had the most to lose last night, and he lost the debate in spectacular fashion — lost it before it was even over.

What we saw last night was the charlatan laid bare, a man who learned what he needed to take the test and no more, a man whose need to cram for this foreign policy exam says everything we need to know about his “leadership.”

Schieffer reminded everyone of what was at stake when the debate opened: “Tonight's debate, as both of your know, comes on the 50th anniversary of the night that President Kennedy told the world that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba — perhaps the closest we've ever come to nuclear war. And it is a sobering reminder that every president faces at some point an unexpected threat to our national security from abroad.”

The American people last night got an equally sobering indicator of just how unready for the presidency Mitt Romney is, and what he is at essence: a generally incurious, self-satisfied man whose own cloistered world is happily sufficient unto itself; a man whose existential underpinnings are as far from those of everyday Americans as the earth is from the moon; a chameleon ethical ghost, the standard-bearer and personification of a once-proud political party now lost in a wilderness of its own invention.

Image credits: Debate images: Pool camera. GOP maze illustration: Clay Bennett/Chattanooga Free Press.

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