Two weeks ago, after the first debate, I proudly reported that Mitt Romney had just gotten himself elected president. His performance was that good and that impressive.
Well, I’ve never been one to pull a punch, and I’m not going to start now. Here’s the deal: Mitt Romney did not win this second debate. In fact, he lost it, and by a wide margin.
In the first debate, Romney was brimming with confidence, and he dominated; he was on the attack. Tonight, by contrast, it was Obama who was brimming with confidence and on the attack.
Oh, Romney got in some punches; but for the most part, he was on the defensive. And he seemed increasingly deflated and subdued as the debate wore on.
Romney’s most cringe-inducing moment was when he allowed Obama to escape unscathed for his dereliction of duty re: Libya. Obama threw up a veil of emotional rhetoric about how he cared deeply for our diplomats; yet he refused to explain why he denied their request for additional security.
The Obama administration has been engaged in an elaborate cover-up and willful deception and denial re: Libya. Romney should have hit the president hard over this issue. But instead, he seems to have been cowed by the media and foreign policy establishment, which have attacked him (Romney) for criticizing Obama.
It was a significant lost opportunity; and it does not bode well for Romney in the third debate, which focuses exclusively on foreign policy.
If there is a saving grace for the Republican nominee, it is this: He did not lose this debate nearly as decisively as Obama lost the first debate. Equally important, Romney already has a clear and unambiguous debate win under his belt.
For these reasons, this second debate will not prove to be electorally decisive in the way that the first debate was and is. This means that the outcome of the election hinges upon the third debate.
If Romney can again make Obama the issue, if he can again attack Obama for his myriad and manifest failures of leadership, then he will win this election and become our forty-fifth president. And if not, then not: Obama will have four more years to complete his fundamental transformation of America. Shudder at the thought.
Update: Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol agrees. “Obama,” he writes,
may have stopped Romney’s momentum, but it’s hard to believe he reversed it. So we’re likely to have a dead-even race going into the third and final debate Monday night. That potentially decisive debate is on foreign policy. So, after all the talk about how this election was inevitably and only going to be about the economy, foreign policy could well be the tie breaker.
The problem, as Kristol points out, is that Romney isn’t all that confident discussing foreign policy. He seems to lack strong convictions and ideas beyond the platitudinous (i.e., “peace through strength”).
Some conservatives, such as talk radio host Laura Ingraham, argue that it doesn’t matter. This election, they say, won’t be decided on the basis of foreign policy; that’s not what people care about.
But that misses the point. People may not care about Libya per se; but they do care about presidential competence and presidential leadership. They do care if a candidate can assume the role of commander in chief and leader of the free world.
The problem with Romney’s fumbling of the Libya question is that it calls into question his ability to be president and his competence as commander in chief. In that sense, the sum and substance of Romney’s response is less important than the confidence and coherence that underlie his response.
In short, Romney needs to find his voice re: Libya and other pressing foreign policy questions or risk losing this election. And he needs to attack Obama’s foreign and defense policies with the same vim and vigor that he attacks his domestic policies, or again, he will lose.