11:23 pm Oct. 22, 2012
In Boca Raton on Oct. 22, two men with two different goals engaged in two different debates.
There wasn’t a ton of disagreement on policy—in fact, Mitt Romney seemed to go out of his way to endorse several of Barack Obama’s policies, like the use of drones.
But make no mistake, on tone and preferred subject matter, the candidates went onto the stage with very different ideas of what they wanted to accomplish.
For Romney, the approach was to present himself as calm, safe and unflappable, and to hit some key talking points, whether on the assigned topic of foreign policy or not. So rather than fight back when the president attacked his policy on Russia as something out of the 1980s, or mocked his understanding of contemporary military needs with a reference to "horses and bayonets," Romney smiled and stayed on his talking points.
Gone was the confrontational challenger from last time who directly, repeatedly cross examined his opponent. This Romney kept his eyes locked on moderator Bob Schieffer, presenting his answers calmly and with a smile, carefully hitting the key points he wanted to address, from the economy to education and taxes.
Wearing a pained look that made it seem as if he were listening more in sorrow than in indignation, the former governor suavely directed the conversation towards jobs and the economy, reasoning that a way to bolster the nation’s standing would be through economic improvement. He managed to work in talking points about high test scores in Massachusetts, and talked expansively about the nation’s flagging economy, despite the ostensible foreign-policy mission.
The calculation appeared to be that Romney needed to avoid looking too confrontational—perhaps a compensation after last week’s melee on Long Island—and that as long as he avoided looking too scary, or anything like a Bush-type war-monger, he’d win.
To that end, Romney cheerfully congratulated the president on capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. Rather than take the bait and return fire when attacked, he cautioned the president that “attacking me is not an agenda.” And he continually tried to convey to viewers that he would not rush to war.
The risk Romney was willing to take was in deciding to let some of the president's attacks go unanswered.
And Obama, who died of passivity in the first debate, was in an attacking mood. Depending on what Romney said, Obama would either attack it as a terrible, “wrong” idea (as on Iraq and Libya) or tell the audience that Romney’s response (as on Syria and Mubarak) was the same as Obama’s, proving “he has no different ideas because we’re doing the right thing.”
He assailed Romney for being “all over the map,” wanting to “airbrush history,” and calling for old-fashioned military expenditures.
“A few months ago, you said Russia was our biggest threat; the 1980s wants its foreign policy back,” Obama said (in what was perhaps an homage to 1980s humor).
“Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong!” Obama said another time, referring to Romney’s calls to go to war in Iraq, oppose nuclear treaties with Russia, and reject a fixed withdrawal timeline in Afghanistan.
And he likened Romney’s references to naval boat totals to worrying over supplies of war horses and bayonets.
If Romney’s strategy was to convey steadiness and peaceful intent (he repeatedly referred in his closing statement to wanting "peace"), Obama’s was to make him pay for it.
In terms of demeanor, Romney looked like a man pleased with his position in his race, risking nothing to shake up the basic calculus. Obama, on the other hand, was determined not to let a single opportunity pass him by, whether because he's still smarting from the debacle in Denver, or because his campaign now believes it is incumbent on them, rather than Romney, to change the current dynamic.
If Romney was seeking to avoid offense, and to offer reassurance to undecided voters that he is a responsible person and definitely not a scary war-monger, Obama was playing to win, by dominating the debate on facts, TV moments, and points.
They both got what they wanted.