The “tell” of tonight’s third and final presidential debate arrived early. Mitt Romney declined to press President Obama on the Benghazi debacle. Truth be told, he declined to attack Obama on much of anything. On Iran, Syria, and Egypt, Romney promised to govern in much the same fashion as Obama, only with more “leadership” and “strength.” And yet at the same time, Romney emphasized his desire for peace and his abhorrence of war. If his mission in the first debate was to allay fears that he was another supply-sider, his mission tonight was to reassure swing voters that he’s not a neocon.
Romney showed up not to attack — but to audition.
Much of the insta-commentators have noted the same thing, or variations of it: By “playing it safe,” Romney must believe he’s winning. Romney’s goal tonight was “first, do no harm,” to look like a plausible commander-in-chief. True — but does a one-term governor with no foreign policy experience have any other option than to play it safe and do no harm? This was then-Sen. Obama’s job vis-as-vis Sen. John McCain in 2008. He did no harm in that election’s foreign policy debate — and won an election that turned on the economic crisis. Romney may yet pull off the same trick.
But let there be no doubt: Obama beat Romney more decisively tonight than he did in the second debate, zinging Romney repeatedly for conceding the particulars of almost every issue of substance. It’s unlikely that Obama will see a bounce from this debate — domestic issues did figure in the debate, and there Romney pounced with vigor — but I do think it’s possible that Obama will blunt Romney’s momentum.
Yet I also think it’s true that, according to the low threshold of modern presidential theatricality, Romney passed an important test tonight. He probably persuaded low-information voters that he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to foreign affairs.
It’s going to be a horserace for the next two weeks. But Obama may have helped himself at least marginally tonight.