A debate for the electorate, not for us foreign policy wonks

A debate for the electorate, not for us foreign policy wonks

I got roped into writing my debate reaction for a local newspaper, so I didn’t post it on Shadow yesterday. You can read it here — but note a correction: Rosa Brooks’ title was Counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, not Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. (I referenced her article and follow-up piece in my oped because they are two of the most important and revealing items ever written by an Obama insider and should be required reading for anyone interested in the conduct of foreign policy over the past four years.)

The gist of my op-ed is pretty simple: Romney’s goal evidently was to thwart the hundreds of millions of dollars of attack ads and countless attack opeds that tried to paint him as unfit to be president and especially commander-in-chief. In this debate, he wanted to show that he had a solid grasp on the issues, could set recent events in their broader strategic context, was not a war-monger, and was not so blinkered by partisanship that he would gainsay every policy Obama has followed. He was willing to draw contrasts, but he was not focused on a point-by-point critique of all of the foreign policy mistakes the Obama administration has made.

Obama pursued a very different approach, taking every opportunity to level attacks, some false, many misleading, and most rehearsed. It was a performance that his base clearly enjoyed and that seemed to win him the debate at the superficial level of who delivered more zingers suitable for replay in Jon Stewart’s monologue.

Romney’s approach was aimed at the undecided electorate, not at his base and definitely not at foreign policy wonks like me. In many wonkish discussions since, I and my colleagues identified numerous opportunities to critique Obama or rebut an Obama critique of him that Romney chose not to exploit. I have to assume this was a deliberate strategy and while it is not the approach I would have taken, I also concede that he has a lot more experience running for president than I do. Certainly the CNN poll of debate viewers, which had a clear majority saying Romney has passed the commander-in-chief test, suggests that his performance accomplished something important.

Before the official debate, I moderated a surrogate debate at Duke between Governor Howard Dean and former Bush Senior Advisor Karl Rove. Our debate prefigured some of the subsequent discussion — though ours had much greater infotainment value! — and also reached a similar conclusion about the overall state of the race. Both Dean and Rove said the race was exceptionally tight, but each called it for their side. Dean thought it was possible Obama would lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College. Rove thought it would come down to a very close Romney victory in Ohio.

In an election that close, perhaps even the slightest tactical calculation will have proven decisive. If Obama loses overall because he loses Virginia narrowly, I wonder if he will regret the snarky and misleading zinger he delivered about the size of the Navy — a crack that likely appealed to Jon Stewart’s audience, but not to the Virginia communities that understand how Obama’s cuts to the Navy have strained the force and undercut his pivot to Asia. If Romney loses narrowly, I wonder if he will regret not calling the president out for the many misleading claims he made.

Is it possible that a debate on foreign policy will matter that much in election when most of the public says the domestic economy is their top priority?