Presidential Debate No. 3 did not have any of the hard-hitting exchanges or lop-sided shoot-outs that the first two did. But the outcome was clear: Both candidates performed impressively, and I would put President Obama clearly ahead on substantive arguments. But Gov. Mitt Romney fought the debate on his own terms, didn’t get flummoxed, as he did in Debate No. 2 and – most important of all – looked and acted presidential.
As he showed throughout all those grueling and seemingly endless Republican candidates’ debates Romney has studied and internalized the key principle of his wife’s equestrian sport of dressage far more than any commentator has realized.
Dressage is all about appearances, looking good, cool and in command, even during the unavoidable bad moments when you aren’t. In the foreign policy debate, Romney just had to remain cool and impressive, however superficially, to maintain his momentum and come out ahead in the game – and he did.
For the president, the third debate was neither a fiasco like Round One in Denver, not a hard-hitting punch-‘em-in-the ribs partial comeback like Debate No. 2 in New York. And Obama needed to do far more than he did. He needed to paint Romney as an ignorant and irresponsible menace on foreign policy – and he didn’t even begin to do that.
Polls have shown that Obama’s fighting partial success in Debate No. 2 did not reverse the momentum he so clearly lost in Debate No. 1. The polls are swinging Romney’s way, first in most of the key battleground states, and second, among the lady voters who for the first time are decisively tilting toward him over the president. And unless Obama’s team can pull a November Surprise out of the hat — with only two weeks to go to V (for Voting) Day, this Christmas in the White House will be the president’s last.
In terms of substance, the debate was amazingly lopsided, and reflected the superficiality of the American media and the miserable levels of foreign policy and world awareness among the American people.
Israel, columnist Mark Shields noted on PBS after the contest, was mentioned well over 20 times. Asia, apart from China-related trade issues, wasn’t mentioned at all. The threat of nuclear war didn’t get a single mention except with Romney’s statement on Iran. The fact that the United States is effectively totally defenseless against any attack by more than one or two intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads wasn’t mentioned once.
Romney is confrontational toward Russia, or at least pretends to be. Obama has signaled that he isn’t. But neither candidate got to grips with the crucial importance of maintaining good relations with the prime thermonuclear power on the planet. (Russia has 500 more active nuclear warheads at least than the United States does – and its levels of maintenance of them is infinitely better than ours).
Sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of people die in the most frightful wars and chaos every year, didn’t rate a mention: Nor did the continuing euro-zone crisis, which currently poses the greatest threat to global fiscal stability.
Both candidates shadow-danced around the taboo subject of imposing protectionist policies against China – Romney in fact went far further, repeating an earlier pledge to force China to up-value its currency against the dollar as soon as he takes the Oath of Office.
Neither candidate mentioned continuing U.S. support for the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which could easily because a flashpoint for war or major crisis if Russia at any point invades it again as it did in 2008.
On the Middle East, Obama confounded Republican hopes and came out strongly. Romney, in order to look reassuring and presidential, softened his earlier incendiary criticisms of the administration and backpedalled repeatedly on his earlier hard rhetoric statements on issues in the region.
Now that all three debates are over and done with, it is clear that the president’s catastrophic stumbles in the first one were the fateful turning point. The history of previous presidential debates all the way back to Nixon-Kennedy in 1960 was confirmed again. There is never more than one crucial blub, or devastating shaft that sticks in the minds of audience, however many debates there are. And the decisive debate is invariably the first one. It is then that the crucial impressions are made.
Here, Romney succeeded just as John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did before him. In his first knightly joust against an incumbent president (Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992) or sitting vice president (Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000), the challenger has to appear at least as cool, commanding and presidential as the sitting champion, and preferably more so.
This is classic dressage –sit tall and straight in the saddle, and look confident and cool. The Romans called it dignitas. Romney met that standard and more in Debate No. 1. Not all his flusters in Debate No. 2 could erase that impression, or reverse his new momentum in the polls.
Obama can still win, but his time is to regain the momentum is running out fast: Right now I would give it 52-48 to Romney with a wider margin in the Electoral College.
And take our poll on the right side of the homepage. You might be surprised who is winning.
Martin Sieff is an editor at Sputnik, the Russian-owned news organization. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East (2008), Gathering Storm (2014) and Cycles of Change: The Three Great Eras of American History and the Coming Crisis that will Lead to the Fourth (2014). Follow Martin on: @MartinSieff