What one can say with certainty about the last presidential debate is that it is not a game-changer — which is good for Romney, because the game is currently scoring in his favor. In that way, it was a nothing of a debate. Nevertheless, there were aspects of the debate that were fascinating.
Fascinating aspect No. 1: Obama’s rhetoric had absolutely nothing to do with his presidency. If I had never heard of Obama before last night and then tuned into the debate, I would have been impressed by what he said (except for the nasty tone, which I’ll get to later). He spoke about a balance of diplomacy and might, he spoke of a strong military, he claimed to be a true friend to Israel, he understood that America is a world leader, he touted America’s responsibility to advance freedom, he recognized that one can’t be a leader with a disastrous home economy, he said he supported Iran’s abortive Green revolution, and he said that he would never allow Iran to get the bomb. It was as if the last three and a half years never happened.
The Obama of the debate never had kill lists for Pakistan and crawl-on-the-belly lists for Russia. He didn’t offend England, and Poland, and the Czech Republic, while making nice to Chavez and Morsi. Nor did the debate Obama have anything to do with depleting the military to a point where it’s at its weakest since before WWI.
The talking head with saw last night is so tightly linked with Israel that, not only is there no daylight between the two, but he and Netanyahu will be the first in line when gay marriage is federally recognized. This seems a little bit at odds with the insults, slights, demands, and cold-shoulders the administration aimed at Israel for more than three years. Obama’s debate posture pretends that, when it came to Israel’s borders, Obama didn’t make a precondition for negotiations more extreme even than the Palestinians were demanding. This Obama, unlike the real world Obama, is BFFs with Israel.
The debate Obama was a champion of American exceptionalism, a man who never went around the world explaining to foreign countries that America isn’t so great and, if she leads at all, she should lead from behind. This was not a man who boasted that he would fundamentally transform America. Nor was this a man who made it plain that his fundamental transformation included attacking America’s core identity, many of her constitutional rights, and her economic system.
Finally, last night’s Obama was so tough, I’m surprised he hasn’t already bombed Iran back into the Stone Age. Where was the man who stood aside while the Iranian people took to the streets demanding greater freedom? Where was the man who has consistently worked to weaken the sanctions Congress has imposed on Iran? And where was the president who has been so passive about Iran’s nuclear program that Ahmadinejad has endorsed him for president?
Frankly, I found this Obamabot irritating. He’s like the guy who, behind closed doors, abuses his wife but, in public, calls her “Sweetie” and holds her hand, He’s a brute, not because he doesn’t know any better (his public behavior shows that he does), but because he wants to be a brute. That’s where his private inclinations lie. Last night, Obama demonstrated that he knows perfectly well what is good for America and what Americans want, but his behavior over the past three years shows that he wants to be a weak, anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-military leader. He’s the presidential equivalent of a wife beater.
Fascinating aspect No. 2: Romney ignored Obama. After trying to go head-to-head with Obama in the second debate, Romney went back to his first debate strategy of talking directly to the American people. It wasn’t as effective as in debate no. 1, because Obama was more animated but, in a funny way, it was the most insulting thing Romney could have done. (And we’ll get back to insults in a minute.)
In the first debate, Romney focused on introducing himself to the American people, not as the Frankenstein Capitalist the Obama media and Obama himself created, but as an intelligent, thoughtful, humane individual. Romney achieved that goal and then some. In this second debate, though, Romney wanted to show the American people that he is presidential. He talked to them about broad policy concerns, and treated Obama like a buzzing fly. Romney swatted at Obama occasionally, but otherwise focused on having a dialogue with the voters.
I would have liked to have seen Romney challenge Obama more directly on some of his lies (and there were a lot of lies), but Romney’s approach was, as I said, peculiarly insulting on its own terms. He essentially said Obama is so irrelevant he can be ignored.
Fascinating aspect No. 3: Obama was unbelievably nasty and condescending. The true believers were elated by his “wit,” but I wonder if the undecideds didn’t find it unpresidential. This was not a frat party or even an Alfred E. Smith dinner roast. This was a serious presidential debate. Unloading the equivalent of “Yoo hoo, old fart, the 80s are calling,” was not statesmanlike, and Romney was wise to look at the camera (i.e., the voters) and ignore it.
The nastiest statement, of course, was Obama’s response when Romney made a lengthy argument about the problems with our depleted military. Romney talked about the fact that the military can no longer fight a war on two fronts and about the Navy’s concerns that the Navy has too few ships. With regard to that last, Romney noted in passing that we have fewer ships than we’ve had since 1917. Obama ignored the overarching argument entirely (Obama’s policies are weakening our military during dangerous times for America), and got terribly excited about the whole 1917 (or, as Obama said, 1916) bit:
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.
Ouch! In 7th grade, that would have been a great riposte. At a presidential debate, not so much. None of us one likes someone who is condescending and arrogant, and that’s true whether the insult is directed at us or at someone else. More than that, by making such a definitive statement about today’s military, Obama left himself wide open to corrections. And it’s easy to correct his gross errors. Yes, in 1917, the military mostly had battleships and now has aircraft carriers, but it also requires a host of supporting ships, from amphibious assault vessels to destroyers to supply ships, etc. And as everyone except the president knows as of this morning, we use horses in Afghanistan and the military still trains with bayonets for close combat.
There is a difference between being witty and being nasty. When I was 13, I didn’t know the difference and I wasn’t much liked. Now, I’ve figured it out, and people enjoy my company. Obama wasn’t witty, he was nasty, and that’s the one thing he couldn’t afford in this election. After all, Obama’s never had anything to run on but his likability. In 2008, he needed to be liked because he had no record; in 2012, he needs to be liked because he has a big record.
UPDATE: A friend sent me a link to an article from last year discussing the way in which bayonets continue to be useful in battle situations. My dad used bayonets at El Alamein (or maybe somewhere in Crete — I’m not quite sure), and he considered them his friends in battle.