Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Foreign Policy Debate

My post is up over at PP -- it's all about Mitt Romney, and the policy gap. As usual, what I did was to post that one quickly, before seeing any reactions at all outside of what I saw on twitter during the debate.

I see now that the instapolls are on Barack Obama's side again this time, for whatever that's worth. And the rest of what I saw is mostly supporting that, so it looks as if it was a good night for Obama. We'll see how the polls react (or don't) over the next several days, of course. Too soon to know.

I'll say a bit about Obama's performance, since I didn't over there. Probably more tomorrow (yes, I've been a bit distracted tonight with the Giants/Cardinals game -- forgot to put up an open thread before the debate, even).

I suspect -- although I'm not sure -- that the fact checkers are going to give Obama a harder time on this one. Just a guess; there's nothing in particular that stood out to me, but I thought a few times he was shading things a bit more than usual. That's probably good strategy on his part; by establishing a reputation as relatively more factually connected than his opponent, he can probably afford to slip a few through, something his campaigns have done before with ads. I could be wrong...I'll be reading the fact-checkers tomorrow morning, not tonight.

As for the rest of his performance: it struck me that Obama was spending quite a bit of time on personal attacks, some rather petty, rather than on policy attacks. He didn't get to tax returns, but he did get to Romney's investments, and I think some others. Granted, when he's running against a guy whose entire defense of his budget plan is to trust him because he's balanced budgets in business (Huh? You don't do that in business; it's not the same thing at all), it's perhaps understandable that Obama would go at him for those sorts of things. Still, several of Obama's attacks seemed small and not very convincing to me.

Granted, some of the attacks were quite successful, including the one that seems to be getting the most play tonight -- the one on Romney's attacks on the size of the navy. And Obama was never really pressed hard, never even close to being rattled, thanks in part to Romney's choice to back away from many of his attacks and in part to Obama being quite capable of handling attacks. At least most of the time.

It's a mug's game to guess what effect any of that has on the election, other than saying again that (1) the history of these things is that most debates don't make much of a difference, and that (2) if the election is in fact very close, then "not much of a difference" could still be significant. There's really no substitute, however, for waiting for the polls.

More, I suspect, tomorrow.


  1. For some reason, last night it really hit home how astonishingly vapid our politics/culture are in an era of twitter-fried memes. I think it was around the time that Romney did his "me too" bit on drones before noting that he would additionally do the neocon thing by helping the country lift itself up.

    Maybe this involves taping redbox coupons to the missiles from the drones? Sorry about your village, if its still standing, I hear your local haberdasher finally has Rambo in its redbox; here's a coupon...oh, no, wait, not Rambo, nevermind.

    Romney will pay no price for that vapidity because: "drones good" + "hearts and minds good" and...well, we just don't do interaction effects these days.

  2. The other takeaway from last night was how, for the last two debates, Obama really had that edgy peevishness that is a characteristic of the most effective high-level manager you know. 90% of life is showing up, so 90% of being a good executive is looking like one, imo Obama did moreso in these last two debates than at any other time in his public life.

    There's much sturm und drang on the reliable right about how not nice Obama has become. I think everyone notices that, including, perhaps, the undecided voter who now sees Obama like that VP in BigCo whose organization everyone wants to join because he doesn't take no shit from no one.

    Its pretty remarkable what an effective study Obama can be.

  3. It seemed to me that Romney was executing the strategy of a boxer in the final round who thinks he's up: don't engage. Romney did everything he could to soften his attacks (peace! peace! peace!) and not fall into a "Benghazi moment" like he did in the second debate (so no confrontations really).

    Sure, he did attack a little bit (apology tour! weak military!), but it seemed kind of rote, a formality. Again with the boxing metaphors, but he looked like he was just trying to clinch; he didn't want to attack and look like Bush 2.0 on foreign policy, and he didn't want Obama to be able to land any blows. I don't think this debate will make much difference in the polls unless the media runs with something (especially considering game 7 and MNF were on last night). It did strike me that Romney's performance was fairly different than how he would probably govern on foreign affairs (given who is advising him).

    1. I wish Obama had more clearly driven home that last point you make. Obama characterized Romney's foreign policy positions as "reckless" a couple times, but more often he seemed to emphasize that Romney was "all over the map." Whatever position-taking Romney might be doing on any given day, wouldn't it be a good talking point for Obama to point out that Romney has chosen former incompetent Bush advisors to head up many of his foreign policy advisor staff?

    2. Only if you want to talk about how many Bush advisors are on Obama's staff...

    3. I don't follow. In foreign policy, there's Gates, but he helped effect Bush's significant course correction. Romney's gone all in on taking the third and fourth-raters, almost all neo-cons, from Bush and the GOP's stable. It should not be hard to tie Romney to the most irresponsible parts of Bush's foreign policy judgment.

  4. An important moment for me was when MR answered the question about Pakistan by basically saying, "Of course we have to be friends with them! They have so many nuclear bombs! What if extremists take over!? Ahhh!"

    Good strategy: appear frightened on national television while telling the American people that we have to play nice with scary foreigners. Contrast that with Obama cold, hard "I'm going to take care of it" routine.

    It seems from reading conservative bloggers as if Romney's team believed that they had momentum behind them (I guess they haven't been checking those pesky polling averages!) and thought that Romney could play it safe, have the media declare it a "tie" and coast to victory.

    And as other bloggers pointed out, that sounds a lot like Obama's strategy going into the first debate... and it appears to have yielded very similar results. The similarities go on, I think: Before the first debate, Obama seemed to be polling much better than he "should" be. Why was he beating MR by like 5 percentage points? His approval ratings weren't that good, and the economic realities had political scientists like JB telling us it was going to be a close race. So when the "correction" came in conjunction with MR's debate bump, it hit pretty hard.

    So why is MR tied right now, when Obama's approval rating is around 50 percent and those same economic realities suggest that Obama should be narrowly ahead? It seems like another "correction" is in the works. Maybe this debate is the excuse a few million unenthusiastic Dems and Dem-leaning voters need to get behind Obama... or maybe it will take them another week to do so. But it seems very unlikely to me that MR has any magical "momentum" behind him at this point.

    Also, I haven't noticed any fact-checkers going after Obama yet. Seems like all the media focus is on how badly MR did.

    1. But it seems very unlikely to me that MR has any magical "momentum" behind him at this point.

      Right. The "momentum" canard may have been true two weeks ago, but as any poll aggregator site will show, it isn't true now.

      In fact, it is pretty impressive how unanimous all the poll aggregators are right now. As of this moment, the major aggregators - RCP, 538, Pollster, and TPM - each have Obama leading in the electoral college.

      More importantly, looking at the trends in each aggregator, there has been no consistent movement toward either candidate since Romney's initial post-Debate 1 surge. The trend has bounced up and down since that time, which is indistinguishable from statistical noise.

      It looks like the race has mostly settled. Unfortunately for Romney supporters, it has settled with their candidate on the wrong side of 270.

    2. http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/kos-seiu-poll-obama-closes-gap-since-last


      Just kidding!

      I was thinking about this more on my morning jog (I should measure my average speeds over the past month... I bet I've started jogging at least 2 or 3 mph faster since the first debate) and it occurred to me that Romney's end-game strategy is to 1) convince Obama voters that our guy is losing (ahem Andrew Sullivan) to try and keep us home and 2) convince Romney voters that their guy is winning to boost enthusiasm.

      That's what this "momentum" stuff is all about... they aren't stupid, they know that they're on track to lose (by a hair). This is Romney's last trick.

    3. Exactly. It's bluster, propaganda, whatever you wish to call it. It is not a reflection of reality; it is an attempt to shape and change reality.

      Unfortunately a lot of the mainstream media doesn't get the difference.

  5. One slight correction - there is a substitute to waiting for the polls. It's called waiting for the election.

  6. JB, you note that Obama didn't attack on policy, but that's hard to do when Romney's policy positions mostly consisted of "Me, too." The major variation came between the times he openly said "me, too," and the times he appeared to be taking a different position that amounted to "me, too," when you looked at the specifics. The only substantive differences seemed to be in the size of the military budget/navy and possibly in the size of the guns he wants to send to Syrian rebels. In terms of strategy, I have to agree with those who say he's given up on trying to win anyone over on the subject of foreign policy (probably not a winning proposition to begin with) and wished only to soothe those who were willing to vote for him for other reasons but feared he might be too dangerous or belligerent abroad.

    Regarding the navy, it's true that if you want to keep open all the shipping lanes in the world, then you need a bigger navy than someone who only wants to dominate the South China Sea, especially if that someone already has airbases and missile sites in the immediate vicinity of the South China Sea. On the other hand, regardless of how today's navy compares to that of 1917, the more relevant comparison is that today's US navy is approximately the size of the next 13 largest of today's navies combined. We have 11 aircraft carriers; no other navy in the world has more than one or two (the UK and France are currently sharing one).

    On Romney's foreign policy advisers, I'm not so sure. It's certainly appropriate to attack him on the neocons he's chosen to surround himself with up to this point. As with so many other subjects, however, it's hard to know how much that will mean after the election is over. We'll have to see whether he actually brings them into an administration (if he wins). Robert Zoellick, the person he picked to head his foreign policy transition team is much more level-headed, more like the Romney who showed up at this debate rather than the Romney of the primaries.

    1. As far as not winning on foreign policy...one thing upon which a national right-wing candidate can always hang his hat is that his is seen to be the "grown-up" foreign policy; that his Democratic opponent is a naive idealist. Dubya didn't know the first damn thing about world affairs, but he (more or less) built an 8-year Presidency on this perception of Republican 'wisdom' about world affairs.

      I take your points about Romney's behavior, Scott, but I still find it strange in light of the omnipresent Republican tailwind re: shrewdness in foreign affairs. Its not like Romney is at all hesitant to smirk and say "trust me" on a matter about which he knows nothing; he goes to that well every time his ridiculous deficit-exploding tax "plan" is raised.

      So it does seem a little odd that Romney hesitates to bank the same easy money on the foreign policy side, and I suspect it really doesn't speak well for even minimal Romney comfort with world affairs.

    2. Yes, the Republicans long had a reputation for expertise in foreign affairs, and it was deserved, but I think Bush pretty much shot that down. Now, many of them seem to rely on a sort of unfocused belligerence, assertions of exceptionalism, and an implicit hope that people will confuse them with the earlier generation. And you're right about Romney's "trust me" approach to most issues. But, anyhow, I only meant that most voters are focused on the economy and won't be making their decision on the basis of foreign policy. So Romney could afford to take a cautious approach of just looking mature and peaceful and avoiding major gaffes.


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