Barack Obama won the final debate of his presidency by bringing a bayonet to debate an opponent trying hard to stay above the fray.
Mitt Romney has never been more than very slightly ahead of President Obama in the polls. But he acted Monday like an incumbent with a 15-point lead. He agreed with Obama more than he disagreed, as if hoping to run out the clock, avoid any disruptions, and coast to another term.
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The problem? He isn't the incumbent. It's been his biggest advantage in a race that has been, like you've heard many times before, a referendum on Obama's four years in office.
On Monday, for perhaps the first time in the debates, Obama was able to turn incumbency to his advantage. He criticized Romney as aggressively as a third party candidate might take on the powers that be – even as he pointed to his foreign policy experience.
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Romney is a famously pliable candidate, and the president sought to remind voters of that by repeatedly calling him "all over the map."
Romney couldn't go to the left of Obama without looking weak to his conservative base. But if he sounded too aggressive, he would have walked into a critique that he was looking for war with Iran, Syria, Pakistan or all three, and putting more Americans in danger.
So Romney took the safe course, and agreed with Obama on almost everything, from defending Israel to preventing a nuclear Iran. All the similar positions made the debate not about policy, but experience. And Obama has more of it.
Whether by a shrewd mastery of international relations or dumb luck — take your pick –Obama has presided over the Arab Spring and the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Whether he is responsible for the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans is very open to debate, and it's surprising how little the candidates debated that point Monday.
Perhaps because Obama made it look like he had made a mistake on Libya in the last debate, Romney quite cleverly tried to shift the debate to domestic policy. He argued that a weak economy makes the U.S. weaker abroad. It was a simple argument even the least-informed undecided voter could understand, without having to decipher the intricacies of sanctions against Iran.
Just as Obama may or may not deserve credit for the foreign policy successes on his watch, he catches criticism for unemployment and other economic problems over which he has little actual control. That didn't stop Romney from turning the knife.
But Obama had that bayonet, which he unveiled during the first of two obviously canned monologues.
It was, to be blunt, a pretty over-the-top and ridiculous speech. It seemed designed to inspire tweets and memes and it did. Any incumbent could have delivered it against any outsider to make his opponent look unfamiliar with the realities of modern war.
And it worked.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works," Obama said. "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."
That's condescension at its most condescending. But it drove home a simple message: I'm the president. Let the grown-ups do their jobs.
Romney should have called him out on it. But he didn't, perhaps because it was so outrageous. That was a mistake. (Look for a great comeback in tomorrow's stump speech, when it will be too late.)
Romney did land a strike — really his only successful parry on foreign policy — when he questioned why Obama didn't visit Israel on a recent visit to the Middle East. Romney dubbed it "an apology tour."
"Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq," Romney said. "And, by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel."
Pretty good, right? Especially given that the debate was in Florida, a state filled with Jewish senior citizens. Unfortunately, Obama knew it was coming.
His response included recalling a 2008 trip to Israel when he went to a Holocaust museum "to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable." He further described going to border towns "which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms."
And just like that, a speech made him seem passionately concerned about Israel. Just like his speech in the last debate, about going to receive the caskets of dead Americans, helped quell Romney's suggestion that he hadn’t owned up to the deaths in Libya.
Obama is a master of the personal narrative. He wouldn't have been elected president otherwise. He went into the 2008 race with an incredibly compelling one: the child of an absent African father and white Kansan mother who rose from nothing to become a successful attorney, organizer, and politician.
At the time, he didn't have much experience. Certainly not foreign policy experience. This time around, he does. And Monday, he was more than happy to talk about it.