Monday, October 22, 2012

Pre-blogging: Thoughts before the third 2012 presidential debate

By Michael J.W. Stickings, Richard K. Barry, and Mustang Bobby, with tmcbpatriot and Frank Moraes

Stay tuned for our post-debate post, coming up later!


So. It's 1-1 and tonight's the rubber match, right? The all-important tiebreaker.

That's the way the media will treat it, and perhaps even a few of those all-important "undecideds" as well, and while it's easy to make fun of a political process treated like a sporting event, that's just the reality we live in. Sad as that is.

Generally, this should be solid terrain for President Obama. He has been strong on national security and foreign policy during his first term -- among other things, rebuilding America's key alliances, taking out Osama bin Laden, ending the Iraq War, supporting the overthrow of Gaddafi, carefully managing the American response to the Arab Spring, imposing tough sanctions on Iran (forcing the Iranians to the negotiating table), addressing the dangers of nuclear arsenals left over from the Cold War, and planning the end of the Afghan War while providing focus and purpose there that was previously lacking.

Meanwhile, Romney has been a simple-minded jingoist (like saber-rattling about Iran, implying that he'd start another war), politicizing crises and tragedies (like the Benghazi attack), showing a complete lack of understanding of diplomacy and international relations (like calling Russia America's #1 enemy and talking with bullying bluster about China, even though he has profited hugely from his various business connections there) and generally being an embarrassment on the national stage (like on his summer trip to England, Poland, and Israel, when he managed even to alientate the British with his stupid comments about the London Olympics). And let us not forget that he said the U.S. shouldn't go after bin Laden and continues to assert that the U.S. should still be in Iraq and that the Afghan War should continue indefinitely.

And it should all be fairly predictable. Romney signalled where he's coming from, and pretty much the entirely of his (lack of) understanding of foreign policy with his widely-panned speech at VMI a couple of weeks ago. Ryan did the same last month. Here's the playbook:

We've lost four of our diplomats. And what is the signal that our government is sending the rest of the world? We're being equivocal on our values, we're being slow to speak up for individual rights, for human rights, for democracy. We're seeing countries stifle freedom in Iran, in Russia, and all these other areas. And we're saying we're going to gut our military -- that projects weakness.

Obama should be able to respond to all this, and much more, with effective answers that project his knowledge and leadership.

But, of course, these things aren't really about substance, as we all know by now, even if, as in the last debate, substance can break through (like when Romney was exposed as an offensive ignoramus on Libya). The media, as usual, will focus on style, and it's hard to know how the debate will play out on those terms. Yes, the president should be able to look and sound like a leader with a solid record and a firm grasp of complex issues, but in foreign policy jingoistic bluster often (usually) trumps knowledge and leadership, and so there's an opening for Romney to keep hammering home his talking points (lies) about Obama apologizing for America, allowing Iran's nuclear program to proceed, alienating Israel, and generally being weak.

That's all the opposite of the truth, of course, but the risk is that he gets away with it, particularly with a format (like the first, not the second) and a moderator (Bob Schieffer, who will play it safe, meaning his style will benefit Romney) that will not just restrict interaction between the two candidates but prevent the truth from emerging from the fray. Like last week, the president needs to call him on his lies and distortions without being overly aggressive (he can't do what Biden did), while making sure he speaks with confidence and determination about his strong record.

Perhaps tonight's debate won't move the needle much at all. It's easy to see this as a draw and the race remaining insanely close. But it's also easy to see this being the deciding factor. If Obama comes out like he did in the first debate, the race may well be over. But if he comes out strong, and it plays out like the second debate, he may just get the boost he needs to bring it home over the final two weeks.

Needless to say, I'm nervous, anxious, worried, terrified. So much can go wrong. But Obama does have what it takes, both in terms of what he has done and who he is, to "win" this thing tonight and thereby to remind voters that the choice between the two candidates is stark: leadership and wisdom and a strong America prepared for the challenges of the 21st century on his side, inexperience and recklessness and warmongering on the other. This is what he needs to project tonight, both in style and substance.


We should run a lottery on how long it will take Romney to say Obama has been going around apologizing for America. I'll go with 15 minutes in. Other guesses? Whatever Romney says to make his point, it will be all about trying to suggest Obama has been week and that America needs to project strength around the world to achieve its foreign policy goals. It's the Clint Eastwood / Chuck Norris / John Wayne school of international relations. It's typically American. It makes no sense at all, but a certain percentage of the electorate, those who live in some movie fantasyland, will eat it up.

Given that there is very little difference between the foreign policy positions of the two candidates, Obama's goal will be to make Romney appear reckless by his silly saber-rattling. America is tired of war and the trap Obama needs to set for Romney is to get him so het up with his own bullshit that he tries to imply he would put boots on the ground in some future bloodbath. Women with sons who might be put in harm's way would, I'm guessing, be particularly unimpressed with that argument.

Whatever one thinks of Obama's drone strategy or military surges or whatever, it's going to be hard to paint him as a sissy liberal. I do believe I heard somewhere that he killed Osama bin Laden. Maybe that will come up too during the debate.

I've said before that Joe Biden did a good job of explaining how complex foreign relations really are, how much work goes into building alliances and how key they are. Paul Ryan proved that he could read a briefing book but not that he really understood what he was saying. Obama will have to do the same thing as Biden did to Ryan. He will have to present himself as what he legitimately is, a guy not only in the room when the decisions were made but the guy making the decisions.

As a series of soundbites, it may be possible to sell American jingoism. Over the course of a 90-minute debate, I'm hoping Obama's understanding and presentation of the real world of international politics will make Romney look like the ass he is.

One other thing is that Obama will have to stand up like he did last week and call Mitt a lying bastard when he needs to. But given how much is riding on this debate, I also hope Obama's natural calm will serve him well, while Romney's tendency to get testy when the pressure is on will trip him up.

The winner will be the one who looks like a leader on the world stage. Simple enough. 


I don't think this meeting will draw as much attention as the last one. Mr. Obama's performance in Kentucky answered the question as to whether he had the stage presence to respond to Mitt Romney, and for a lot of the electorate, foreign policy is not that big a deal for them. Given a geography quiz, it's problematic that many voters couldn't find Libya or Syria or even China on a map, and to them it's not as important as the economy. To the right-wingers, who cares what a bunch of other-colored pagans and heathens do, anyway? We're Americans; we should be ruling them.

But this could be the debate that really shows us more of who Mitt Romney is, and if Mr. Obama plays his cards right, he could really score some points, even among the know-nothing crowd.

A sitting president always has an advantage in a foreign policy debate. For one thing, he's briefed every day on what's going on around the world, and he's getting that from people who are actually involved with what's going on, as opposed to Fox News or John Bolton, who seems to spend a lot of time with his home version of Armageddon. And this might be the one debate where Mr. Obama's tendency to speak in paragraphs might actually help him. Explaining the details of sanctions against Iran might go over a little better than "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." Serving as a Mormon missionary in France in the 1960s is not the same as actually working in the State Department, no matter what Newt Gingrich might think. That's like saying spending the summer as a camp counselor makes one qualified to be a superintendent of public schools.

If Mr. Romney's first foray into international relations is any guide, the rest of the world has reason to be nervous about a Romney administration, and not a lot of foreign leaders are even ready for such a possibility. Since many of Mr. Romney's advisers are neocons or veterans of the George W. Bush administration, their fears are not unfounded. President Obama has built a good rapport with many leaders abroad — and without apologizing — and restored the trust that is needed to conduct both business and keep an eye on warmongers and terrorists. Given who Mr. Romney has been consulting, that good will could be trashed overnight.

So while tonight's debate may not be the attention-grabber of the last two, it could be the most important one for voters who have concerns about our future relationship with the rest of the world. And if the past is prologue, that is no small thing.


The final debate! Boy, am I glad. So, what can we expect? Well, if I were advising the 'resident, here is what I would tell him:

Mr. President, tonight is an important one, as were the first two. No sure what happened in debate one, but that's water under the bridge. You "won" the last debate by basically doing what we all expected you to do the first time around. In other words, you're now essentially even. Tonight is really your one and only chance to actually win. Therefore, Mr. President, tonight you must trounce Mitt Romney. Do that and you will get a bump in the polls, keep Ohio in your corner, and maybe even sway a few old people in Florida. Just stay consistent, Mr. President, and you win. Falter, and it's over.

How to do this? Just make Romney look inexperienced and inept. Not that hard to do, right? But here is what you need to remember: We all know that Osama and Gaddafi are dead and we are stoked about it. Remind us about that accomplishment, but then move on. It's old news and Fox News has done a great job making you look like you are gloating. Remember that a lot of people watching tonight actually watch Fox. Also, remember that we are all on board, Dems and Reps, with your getting Osama. It reminds us too that the last guy could not get it done. Just say that and move on. There are far more important things to discuss.

For example, you need to talk about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and how it has not weakened our military as Republicans said it would. They were wrong. Romney said he would not go into Syria to get Osama. He was wrong. Romney thinks Russia is enemy number one and he is wrong. Talk about how, in reality, Iran is enemy number one precisely because of the Republican Party's foreign policy. Talk also about how you have kept us safe nationally. Talk about how our military is strong and how Republicans are trying to scare people into thinking we have a single Naval ship and one propeller plane. It is an old tactic, but one that worked all too well in 2000 for the other side.

Remind voters too how Romney offended our greatest ally with his Olympic gaffe. Also, be sure to mention that he also agrees with you on many issues. For example, unless Romney plans to go to war with Iran, your plan is the correct one. Keep needling him on this. Voters are tired of war and anything but 100% agreement with you means war. Also remind voters that Romney agrees with you on Afghanistan and setting a timeline for getting out. If not, that must mean he wants to stay there indefinitely. Remember, whether your polices are right or wrong is not the issue. It only matter that he agrees with your positions.

Lastly, Romney is going to bring up Libya right from the starting bell. Republicans have primed the pump for this all week. When he picks through your timeline of events, remind him that he went on TV moments after this event unfolded and turned it into a political spectacle before any facts were known. That was irresponsible and he must answer for that.

Be sure to ask Mitt about China next. Ask him how is it that he talks tough even though he helped China create jobs through outsourcing at Bain. Sure, you may have investments in Chinese companies, but Romney helped those companies open their doors to investment while closing businesses here as a result. That's powerful stuff and a great image to present to the viewers at home.

Oh, and when Romney says again that he will call China a "currency manipulator," remind people that he has so much money in offshore accounts that he is a one man currency manipulator!

That's called a zinger, Mr. President. TV watchers love 'em!

It's time to prepare now, Mr. President, and I could go on and on. After all, Romney is an easy one to nail on almost any issue. Bottom line: Stay cool, look Romney in the eyes, and be the boss. Oh, and if Romney begins every answer tonight with how he cares for 100% of voters, nail him again with that 47% remark. It never gets old and people love to hear you say it. I know I do.

But above all else, Mr. President, and I am basing this on the previous debates, the people watching care only about flubs, aggression, laughter, water drinking, disrespect, Big Bird, and how alert you are. Avoid all of these things and you will win.

See? I told you this was easy. Good luck, sir.

Frank Moraes:

I'm not expecting much from the debate tonight. It is on foreign policy, after all. And one of the candidates has no foreign policies. So I suspect that we will hear Romney claim that Obama has totally screwed up because of the Benghazi attack. And he'll go on and on about how tough he's going to get on China. And he'll talk about how he's going to make us energy independent by drilling more and "signing that pipeline!" I doubt we'll hear much more than that. Regardless, he will attack the president on really minor points while not taking any different policy positions.

We certainly won't hear anything about global warming. We won't hear anything globalization, except that free trade agreements rock! Actually, there's so much we won't hear about, it is hardly worth mentioning. The reason we won't get a real debate on foreign policy is that Romney and Obama pretty much agree on everything. The only thing that will be really interesting is exactly what new talking points Romney memorized.

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