Who won the foreign policy debate? No knockout blows… Obama on points

  • Published on October 22nd, 2012

foreign policy debate - who won?So Governor Romney got through his toughest debate – on foreign policy, his weakest subject.

He didn’t make any killer mistakes (although he got a few of his facts wrong: see Live fact-checking the Foreign Policy Debate.)

But in a boxing match, when one fighter goes into a clinch, it’s because he’s getting the crap beat out of him. That was Romney tonight – trying to clinch as close to Obama’s positions on foreign policy as he could, and totally abandoning positions he’s held throughout his seven years running for president. But Obama kept landing the blows.

Some of Romney’s talking points got slapped down pretty hard. He made the mistake of bringing up the long-debunked nonsense attack that our navy has fewer ships than we had in 1916, which Obama slammed with:

But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — 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 — (laughter) — 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.

…And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships.

Here’s the clip:

Syria is NOT Iran's route to the sea... sorry, mittRomney also repeated his bizarre claim that “Syria is Iran’s route to the sea” – bizarre because Iran is NOT next to Syria, but the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea ARE. You’ve gotta wonder about this one, since he keeps repeating it… why?

Obama, meanwhile, got in a few more good zingers, including:

“The 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back” (In reference to Romney’s bizarre assertion that Russia is our great geo-political enemy.)


“You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

But how did Romney do? According to CBS News’ snap poll of independent voters, not so hot:

  • Obama: 53%; 
  • Romney: 23%, 
  • Tie: 24% 
That’s the strongest and most decisive win for Obama to date, bigger than Romney’s win in the first debate.
And there was movement: Prior to the debate the leaners were 24% Obama, 20% Romney. After watching the performance, a BUNCH of them chose up sides: 46% Obama, to just 32% for Romney.
And CNN’s national poll of registered voters has it:
  • Obama 48%
  • Romney 40%

But oddly enough, CNN seems to feel this leads inevitably to the conclusion Poll:  Last debate too close to call. They’re playing the bullshit “margin of error game”, which is what they do when Democrats are ahead. Keven Drum explains this one well – what it ACTUALLY means is there’s a 95% confidence level that Obama was on top. Sheesh.

UPDATE: PPP  has some some swing state snap poll numbers that are excellent news for Obama:

Who won the debate?

  • Obama 53%
  • Romney 42%
Who will you be voting for:
  • Obama 51%
  • Romney 45%
It broke out even more strongly among undecided  independent voters: Obama 55%, Romney 40%. And the gender gap is back with a vengeance: Women are for Obama over Romney, 55% to 41%.

But will all this translate into actual votes? Will it change the overall narrative of the race?

Play to the moderates

What was Mitt’s strategy? Looks like it was:

  • Seem moderate, not extreme
  • Come off as nice, not bullying
  • Pivot from being “severely conservative” to being “severely snuggly”
  • Don’t scare away the ladies

On that measure, he seems to have sneaked through. He didn’t come off as scary. He seemed to know most of his stuff. He distanced himself from his own fiery rhetoric, and that of his foreign policy team. Pity it’s those guys who’ll be in charge if this chameleon manages to fool enough of the people enough of the time to get elected President.

… but hold on to the base…

Did he piss off conservatives? He’s been attacking Obama for calling for a December 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan; tonight he was unequivocally in favor of getting out. He backed off from his sabre-rattling on Iran.. to just calling for even stricter sanctions.

And he actually called for an increase in foreign aid in order to make the world a safer place – something that is anathema to his hard-core conservatives.

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Opinion roundup:

Charles Pierce (Esquire):

You have to give Romney and his campaign credit. They said they were going to do it. They telegraphed the punch five months ago. They told the entire nation that there would come a day in which everything Willard Romney had said about anything in his entire seven-year quest to be president would be rendered, in the memorable word of Nixon White House flack Ron Ziegler, “inoperable.” They told us quite honestly that their entire campaign was going to be based on an ongoing argument between the Willard Romney who ran for the Republican nomination and the Willard Romney who thereupon would run for president. They told us he would renege on his previous positions, and he has. They told us he would reverse his field over and over again, and he has. They told us that the only real principle to which the man will ever hold firm is that he will be utterly unprincipled.

…It was purely surreal, and it was not made any less so by the fact that Romney was clearly uncomfortable with his new moderate foreign-policy programming.

Here’s the New York Times morning editorial:

Mitt Romney has nothing really coherent or substantive to say about domestic policy, but at least he can sound energetic and confident about it. On foreign policy, the subject of Monday night’s final presidential debate, he had little coherent to say and often sounded completely lost. That’s because he has no original ideas of substance on most world issues, including Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

…. Mr. Romney’s closing statement summed it all up. He said almost nothing about foreign policy. He moved back to his comfort zone: cheerfully delivered disinformation about domestic policy.

David Frum:

Per Romney’s insistence on preventing defense cuts, recognize that they are his version of the stimulus. Those ships he speaks of equate to jobs at shipyards, the planes to jobs at Boeing/Lockeed/etc., and the other materials to other jobs across the country. I think Obama’s mocking line about bayonets and horses was quite amusing, but it will be less so to people whose jobs depend on such military spending.

Matt Taibbi:

Just going by the reactions from Carville and Fleischer on CNN (I’ve switched back because that’s where you go to find out the conventional wisdom) it’s already clear what the talking points will be. Fleischer talking about how this debate doesn’t matter because the public is focused on the economy, that’s a clear signal that he knew Romney fucked the dog tonight. This should be the death-blow to Romney, but I’ve said that before and been wrong.


I am glad to know that mitt agrees with Obama so much. No, really. Why vote?

Andrew Sullivan:

The lies this man has said tonight have been more numerous than I can ever remember in any debate. The man does not have the moral character to be president, in my opinion. …  Let me put this as best I can: I don’t believe this current series of total reversals would last a micro-second after his possible inauguration.

James Fallows:

As a matter of substance, it was depressing in principle that this was the level of presidential-campaign discussion on China, India (nothing, or close to it), climate change and the environment (nothing I heard), energy (next to nothing), Europe (ditto). But it was more striking as a matter of substance that on virtually no issue did Romney make an actual criticism, of any sort, of Obama’s policy or record. Instead it was, “I agree, but you could have done it better.”


“Tonight we saw a Commander-in-Chief & a candidate in total confusion.


Again, I’m not a foreign policy expert, but isn’t Romney just saying he’ll continue Obama’s policies in a more leadery way?

Taegan Goddard:

As the debate went on, Romney tried many times to move the international affairs discussion back to the economy where he was more comfortable. It was as if he had only 30 minutes of foreign policy talking points for a 90 minute debate. As a result he seemed to string together random thoughts which often made him sound incoherent.


What’s most curious to me is how much more fervently Romney called for equal rights for women in Middle East than he has in America.

Josh Marshall:

The first half hour was a draw, though President Obama scored by default when Romney either didn’t or couldn’t attack on Libya. After that though Romney began to falter as Obama became more direct, organized and declarative. Romney seemed increasingly lost. Obama seemed comfortable, happy. The visuals told the story.


Unemployment’s down, stocks are up, home prices are rising. And now Romney agrees w/Obama’s foreign policy. It’s Morning in America! #debate



About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.