Near the Finish: at Last, the Last 2012 Presidential Debate

Well, this last in a series of three presidential debates—all of them the debates that will change-alter-decide (pick one) the election—is over. It was not the debate to end all debates—however much we might cheer such a prospect—nor was it an election decider. For some of us, and perhaps for the debaters themselves, the end is a relief.

On the face of it, the debate, ostensibly on foreign policy, but always slipping like a brazen pickpocket into other areas and old arguments, claims and counter claims despite the best efforts of moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, will probably change few hearts and minds and the agonizing indecision of the purported undecided. As for who won—well, even some Romney supporters might agree—President Barack Obama won, but to what effect is more difficult to say.

It was pretty clear early on that Mitt Romney’s main mission was to give the appearance of being presidential. To that end, he resisted the combative and aggressive tactics he had shown in the two previous debates. If not the picture of moderation and reasonableness, Romney nevertheless appeared to have put some thought into the foreign policy issues at hand or was coached to within an inch of his memory.

The result, unfortunately for Romney, was that he and the president appeared to share similar viewpoints and approaches on Middle Eastern affairs. Both promised they would never allow Iran to have a nuclear capability, both agreed to leave Afghanistan within the stated time frame and both said that military interference in Syria was not an option. Gone was the red line option so favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the disdain for diplomacy and sanctions. Romney wants tougher tightening of sanctions and wants to indict the Iranian president as a war criminal now.

Startingly to many, Romney resisted attacking the president on the ongoing Benghazi, Libya, controversy, an arena in which the president remained vulnerable to attack. Instead, Romney invoked a broad vision for dealing with emerging and new regimes rising out of the ruins of the old. All well and good, but as is often the case with Romney, the vision lacked details—for example, how do you make a legally elected regime, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, agree to American interests and human rights?

By contrast, Obama seemed to be itching for a fight, often going after Romney boldly or with saracasm, as when Romney repeated his oft-told complaint that the U.S Navy was at its lowest strength in number of ships since 1917. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets in our armed forces as we did then,” Obama countered with an Internet-inspiring zinger. “We have such things as submarines and aircraft carriers where planes can land.”

Obama once again lauded his administration’s success in killing Osama bin Laden, but Romney said that the problems in the Middle East are such that “You can’t just kill your way out of them.”

They contended to be sure, but the fight seemed not quite so vehement as the thriller-in-Manila atmosphere of the last debate during which both men seemed ready to come to blows. This time, they fought over the auto industry, a discussion which once again Romney muddled through without clarifying. They fought over Romney’s accusation of an Obama "apology tour," to which Obama responded with vehemence, all but calling Romney a liar. “My first stop on a tour when I was a candidate was a visit our troops. In Israel, I went to the Holocaust Memorial, not a meeting with fundraisers.”

There were glitches of all sorts—arguments over China, over the economy. But as has been the case with all four of the debates, including the vice-presidential debate, these reality shows were about appearances—not so much about flubs, truth and consequences, even facts. They were exercises in part-truths, not total truths. They were media extravaganzas. NBC News framed the drama against a 47-47 deadlock in one national poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

Still, some interesting things emerged. Obama was still fighting his way out of that deep, awful hole he had dug for himself in the still difficult-to-comprehend first debate and so was more energized than a Romney playing it somewhat safe, trying not to lose the momentum, the edge that he may appear to have—at least in his mind. The score, as a colleague of mine, said was two close wins for Obama, one major, game-changing win for Romney.

Still, there was that picture of Romney that the GOP standard bearer couldn’t quite erase. He remains someone who changes and moderates positions, and even appearances, on a dime. There was the aggressive Romney, there was the pugnacious Romney, and now the sagacious, statesmanlike, presidential Romney who suddenly expressed a concern about the Taliban coming down the mountains from Punjab in Pakistan. You had to wonder when Punjab ever came up at the dinner table in the Romney household as in “Well, geez, Ann, I’m really worried about Punjab, you know.” Much as flex scheduling, or a sudden interest or an embrace of pre-existing conditions coverage, and his mysterious magical ability to reach across the bi-partisan divide, these are things that seem to come out of nowhere, with no factual history.

Schieffer proved to be a brisker moderator and —except for bringing up the drone issue and once saying “Obama's Bin Laden”—did a professional CBS-news-anchor job.

Not so for some of the reactions on the blogosphere. On the net, we found the sweetheart of Limbaugh University, Ann Colter call the president a “retard” and, mysteriously, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell saw the “horses and bayonets” reference by Obama as an insult to American sailors.

Unlike the previous debate, this one ended with a semblance of sweetness and light as the usual gathering of the large Romney clan on stage was joined by Barack and Michelle Obama. It seemed to startle some of the Romneys, but not one of the grandchildren, who seemed fascinated by Obama and ending up shaking his hand, a tender and spontaneous moment of sorts.

But, after four debates, and much gnashing of teeth and stress, I knew that it was past my bed time and that I could safely turn off the local news, because most of them would be talking about the return of Chris Cooley to the Washington Redskins.

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Sun, 21 Dec 2014 13:02:18 -0500

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