Romney Stands Pat

Having read much of the spin and post-debate assessment, it seems reasonably clear that Mitt Romney basically took a pass on directly challenging the president’s foreign policy record and views in last night’s debate. It almost had to be deliberate. Yes, he got occasionally unlucky in how and when and to whom questions were framed (Obama preempted his entire danger-of-Iranian-nukes rap, which Romney later identified as the most important security challenge facing America). He may have been trying a bit too hard not to interrupt Obama or argue with the moderator. But time and again, on the original Libya intervention, on the Arab Spring generally, on Iran, on Pakistan, on use of drones–he went out of his way to explicitly, not just implicitly, agree with Obama. About the only time he really got animated was in describing Obama’s Cairo speech in the context of defending his “apology tour” smear. And he dodged his big opportunity to re-address Benghazi.

Since Romney’s approach to the debate was clearly strategic, the question is what strategy was he promoting? To hear the GOP spinners after the debate (who all seemed very well briefed), Mitt has already “crossed the threshold of acceptability” as an alternative to a failed president “the American people” have decided to “fire,” and just needed to burnish his credentials as a plausible commander-in-chief. In other words, forget those tied general election polls and the Obama leads in Ohio and Iowa and Nevada, Romney’s upward trend in support is going to continue so long as he continues to remind voters they are unhappy with the economy and Obama’s alleged lack of leadership, and reassures them he’s not an extremist.

Romney did, in fact, repeat his well-honed “Obama’s failed economic leadership” rap two or three times last night–just as he did two or three times in the last debate–and most of us have heard it so many times that we may not realize its effect with low-information undecided voters (or LIUVs, as I’m going to start calling them). And he did sort of a foreign-policy version of it–a “do you think the country’s safer” routine–as well. It does all seem calculated to keep his message focused on the economy and avoid saying anything upsetting to LIUVs. There was enough understated heat on Iran and Palestine to keep the baying hounds of neoconservatism happy through election day; they will presumably get their chance to lobby for immediate war on November 7.

Obama was hardly perfect last night, but certainly “won” by any conventional measure (aside from the implicit victory of having your opponent agree with you so often), and made no mistakes. He stared intently at Romney every time Mitt was talking, never looking down. He was animated and aggressive. He did his own “reassurance” raps aimed at anxious pro-Israel voters and people dependent on defense spending. And he obviously got off both of the memorable zingers of the debate, both shrewdly aimed at showing Romney’s preoccupation with outdated conservative ideological totems–the “horses and bayonets” bit about Romney’s monomania towards maintaining Navy ship levels, and the suggestion that “the 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back.” Indeed, his litany on how Romney wanted to bring back “the foreign policy of the 80s, the social policies of the 50s, and the economic policies of the 20s” may have been his best overall line of the whole general election campaign, certainly worthy of an ad.

But again, whether it matters depends on your sense of where the contest stands. We don’t have the numbers yet on estimated viewership of the debate, but it was bound to be down from previous debates (that’s generally the pattern, and last night the candidates were also competing with both Monday Night Football and Game Seven for the National League Championship). I’m not a big believer in “momentum” in either politics or sports, so I don’t think Romney is going to lose votes because he lost this (or the last) debate. But nor do I find much evidence that Romney is in the lead in any durable way (if there is at present a partisan “enthusiasm gap,” it’s likely to close when the campaign reaches its frenzied ending), and was thus in any position to stand pat in a presidential debate.

So it could be Team Mitt is betting everything on the “economic referendum,” on projecting “Moderate Mitt” as a reassuring figure, and on its campaign’s closing stage of paid ads and GOTV. We’ll know pretty soon if the second and third debates moved Obama back into a clearer lead, and soon after that how the whole deal goes down.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.