The final 2012 presidential debate, unlike the first two, was supposed to focus exclusively on foreign policy. Also unlike the first two, it featured considerable common ground for President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
But taken as a whole, the four debates — three presidential, one vice presidential — have provided a clear contrast on where the major-party tickets want to lead America. Most pundits agreed that President Obama won Monday night’s foreign-policy debate in Boca Raton, Fla. A CNN poll of registered voters reached the same verdict by a 48-40 percent margin.
That, however, doesn’t necessarily portend a reversal, or even a halt, to Mr. Romney’s recent upward momentum in the polls.
Any president, as the commander in chief, has an inherent advantage in a foreign-policy debate. And though the president was the aggressor Monday night, Mr. Romney came across as a well-informed, reasoned man who would guide U.S. foreign policy with a steady hand.
Among the candidates’ many areas of agreement, they emphasized that America can’t have a fully effective foreign policy if we can’t solve our pressing economic problems — both on the jobs and national-debt fronts.
Indeed, that’s where most of their disagreements kicked in, as each reprised his economic pitch while criticizing the other’s.
As for international difficulties, the president and Mr. Romney were in general accord on the importance of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, steering clear of U.S. military intervention in Syria, making China play fair on trade, using drones to kill terrorists, and fostering democratic reforms in the Mideast while somehow avoiding empowering the forces of Islamic extremism.
Mr. Romney even echoed Mr. Obama’s insistence that we must end our long military mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Some conservatives were frustrated by Mr. Romney’s concurrence with the president on so many global matters. Some were particularly disappointed that neither Mr. Romney nor moderator Bob Schieffer pressed Mr. Obama on his administration’s troubling attempts, for nearly two weeks, to portray the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Mohammed video.
In fact, as the Obama team has since conceded, it was a planned terrorist assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Mr. Romney evidently deemed that continuing such a combative line of inquiry, which he had pushed during last week’s debate in Hempstead, N.Y., would be politically unwise.
But that doesn’t mean he was entirely uncritical of the president’s foreign policy. He asserted that “nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago.”
The president vigorously, though not persuasively, disputed that contention.
Yet Mr. Obama did score when he said: “Governor, the problem is, is that on a whole range of issues, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s now Iran, you’ve been all over the map.”
And after Mr. Romney sounded the alarm about our Navy’s decline in ships, Mr. Obama delivered the night’s best zinger:
“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.”
Witty comeback. Then again, though we no longer need horses, we do still need ships.
Mr. Romney hit some winners of his own. He lamented neglected trade opportunities in Latin America, pointing out that its “economy is almost as big as the economy of China.”
He cited the threat of huge, sequestered reductions in military spending: “The president’s own secretary of defense [Leon Panetta] called them devastating.”
He warned that on President Obama’s watch, Iran has advanced “four years closer to a nuclear weapon.” He later added: “I think from the very beginning, one of the challenges we’ve had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration and — and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be. I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.”
As for the president’s insistence that he strongly supports Israel, Mr. Romney recalled that Mr. Obama said he was “going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”
For the next 13 days, however, Mr. Romney and President Obama will try to create margins of victory in the dozen or so “battleground states” that will decide this election.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t decided who should get your presidential vote, review the content of the four debates and other evidence revealing the candidates’ positions. Because despite Monday night’s frequent concordance, those forums have displayed a profound difference in visions for our nation’s future path.
And the better the voters understand those differences, the better the chance that they will choose the wisest course.