Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Practically Useless Debate

The pundits on the left say the President won handily (Greg Sargent actually says Obama pummeled Romney; I think he must have been watching the baseball game and gotten confused). Conservative pundits argue that Romney did what he needed to do: look competent on foreign policy and appear presidential. Either way, the combination of Monday Night Football and a game seven in the MLB playoffs means less-than-stellar numbers for the third and final Presidential Debate, so it's unlikely many minds were changed or made-up last night.

That said, I'll offer my two cents: Obama came across as obnoxious. His not-so-subtle little jabs and accusations didn't play well, in my opinion. In contrast, Romney was polite, elegant, and confident. Chris Wallace summed it up best:
I felt in the middle of the debate that if I had been on a desert island for the last four years, and I had just been parachuted into this debate, I would have thought the guy that turned out to be Mitt Romney was the President protecting a lead, and that Barack Obama was the challenger trying somewhat desperately to catch up.
Obama was looking for zingers, Romney appeared more interested in laying out his vision of American foreign policy (something which, according to the Left, he wasn't supposed to have). Romney purposely declined to go after the President on Benghazi, something that no doubt disappointed many of his supporters. Me, I thought it was the smart play. The Benghazi story continues to damage the Obama Campaign. Republicans in the House and Romney surrogates are effectively hammering the Administration on various elements therein.

There was one big--or perhaps just serious--moment in the debate however, one that some might have missed. It was the exchange over the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) for Iraq:
MR. ROMNEY:Number two, with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a status of forces agreement. Did you —  
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's not true. 
MR. ROMNEY: Oh, you didn't — you didn't want a status of forces agreement? 
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, but what I — what I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.
The moment could have been big, but the reality is that most viewers were probably unfamiliar with SOFAs, what they are, how they are used, and why we failed to extend the one in Iraq. Put simply, a SOFA is an agreement that allows foreign troops to be stationed in a host nation. In this case, the host nation was Iraq, where a SOFA with the United States had been in place since 2008. That agreement expired at the end of 2011, meaning that all U.S. forces needed to be out of Iraq at that point in time. In 2010, however, the Administration tried to negotiate an extension of the SOFA. In that regard, Vice-President Joe Biden said:
Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise. I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA.
Maliki didn't extend it, which begs the question: why is Biden still in office? The long and short of it is, Romney nailed the President's figurative ass to the wall in this issue. Obama did want an extension of the SOFA, meaning that Obama did want troops to remain in Iraq past the end of 2011. The failure to achieve an extension was spun into a new narrative: "all of our troops in Iraq are coming home." Thus, a failure of policy became--as if by magic--a campaign talking point for Obama. It's a shame Candy Crowley wasn't the moderator last night, for maybe she would have stepped in and corrected the President.

But again, this is an issue that has not been widely discussed and thus is not widely understood. It's too complicated to turn into a sound bite, so it will likely go by the wayside in short order. Though Biden should probably have taken a little more heat for his loser of a bet, it's a little late in the game to rely on this as a campaign issue.

Beyond all of this, there was little else of value in the debate, mostly because the issues were largely limited to the Middle East. Newsflash: there are other regions of the world that deserve our attention. Europe, for instance, never came up as a topic. Why? The troubles in the EU remain; the potential fracturing of this body will have repercussions for the United States. Surely this is something worth discussing, from the standpoint of foreign policy. Then there is Mexico and South America, with the still-hot-topic of immigration. And other parts of Africa, not to mention the ever-present issue of Cuba. All of these regions were sidelined, in favor of the Middle East.

Many pundits are noting--with glee--how Romney appeared to agree with the President on a number of fronts. The President--in another petty moment--even sarcastically said he was happy to see that Romney saw al Qaeda as a threat. But come on, who actually feels differently? That's an easy whip to crack, a pitifully easy one. Opposition to terrorism as a debate issue? Really?

I suspect the debate was limited to dumb it down. The issues facing the EU--as examples--are complicated and--if fully discussed--would have created too many openings for Romney to school the President on the economy and the realities of the markets, of high finance, and of how to promote real economic growth. But then, the substance of such a discussion  may have put 47% of the nation to sleep. And we can't have that...

Cheers, all.