It’s a rare experience to sit outdoors in a Paris cafe and read a transcript of a presidential debate. Perhaps it’s better to eat an omelette and pomme frites while perusing a novel, but, for sheer entertainment value, no work of fiction can compete with the spectacle of Mitt Romney being taken apart.
He was so woefully over matched in last night’s foreign policy debate that he couldn’t even get his geography straight. At one point, he said that “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” Wow, that’s quite a revelation, given the fact that Iran has its own route to the sea, courtesy of its own 1000-mile coastline.
But President Obama didn’t rout Romney merely because the challenger can’t read a map. Obama easily won the debate for four reasons: He called out Romney for lying, he educated Romney on basics of national defense, he listed Romney’s long string of foreign policy flip flops, and he enjoyed the many moments when Romney endorsed administration policies.
Romney’s favorite lie popped out midway through the debate – “the president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America” – and Obama was quick to respond: “This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.” Obama was correct. The “apology” meme has been a popular figment of the conservative imagination, and Romney only briefly tried to defend it before giving up.
Obama also smacked down Romney when he tried another of his favorite phony tropes – the notion that the U.S. Navy has been severely weakened by the Obama administration. After Romney complained that the Navy has suffered a big reduction in ships, Obama pounced. It was a priceless putdown. Even the president’s words oozed disdain:
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. 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 has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships.”
The “horses and bayonets” soundbite will probably get a lot of play, but Obama’s broader message – that Romney doesn’t even know the basics of defense policy – deserves equal time.
Later, Obama took the time to list Romney’s flip flops, succinctly so: “Governor, the problem is, is that on a whole range of issues, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s now Iran, you’ve been all over the map. I mean, I’m pleased that you now are endorsing our policy of applying diplomatic pressure and potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear program. But just a few years ago you said that’s something you’d never do.
“In the same way that you initially opposed a timetable in Afghanistan, now you’re for it, although it depends. In the same way that you say you would have ended the war in Iraq, but recently gave a speech saying that we should have 20,000 more folks in there. The same way that you said that it was ‘mission creep’ to go after Gadhafi. When it comes to going after Osama bin Laden, you said, well, any president would make that call. But when you were a candidate in 2008, as I was, and I said if I got bin Laden in our sights I would take that shot, you said we shouldn’t move ‘heaven and earth’ to get one man. And you said we should ask Pakistan for permission. And if we had asked Pakistan permission, we would not have gotten him. And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him.”
The basic dynamic of the debate was well established by that point: Obama played offense, and Romney tried to explain himself. As I said here when Obama was routed in the first debate, the guy who’s stuck on defense tends to lose.
Most striking, however, were the number of times when Romney went belly up and essentially said “me, too.” On a range of foreign issues, the stuff he said could easily have emanated, word for word, from Obama’s mouth.
On Afghanistan: “We’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014….The (troop) surge has been successful.”
On killing bin Laden: “We had to go into Pakistan. We had to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do.”
On deploying unmanned drones to kill terrorists: “We should use any and all means.”
On deterring Iran from building nukes: “It is also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means….Crippling sanctions…do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions.”
By the way, when Romney did attempt to say that his Iran sanctions would’ve been more crippling than Obama’s Iran sanctions, Obama sliced him with a rhetorical stiletto. He addressed Romney directly and said: “While we were coordinating an international coalition to make sure these sanctions were effective, you were still invested in a Chinese state oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector.”
Well, Romney didn’t even try to deny that one. He just had to sit there and take the beating.
I could go on – with respect to Obama’s decision to pressure Egyptian President Mubarek to abdicate, Romney said: “I felt the same as the president did” – but you get the gist. On substance, Romney was trounced. Whether undecided voters know or care is another matter; many of them are probably as clueless as Romney about Iran’s basic geography. But if Romney had hoped to sustain his momentum by polishing his alleged commander-in-chief credentials, it didn’t happen.
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