Presidential debate: Times opinionators divided on Monday’s winner

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
(Win McNamee / Associated Press)

President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney debated foreign policy at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday night. Though moderator Bob Schieffer laid out an agenda, which included our next steps in Afghanistan, dealing with nuclear Iran and negotiating with China, the candidates continuously shifted their focus back to domestic issues.

“Rom hits nail on head: Says strong economy will mean strong foreign presence,” tweeted Charlotte Allen in our live commentary feed, which included voices from the left and right. But she also said: “What happened to foreign policy? Isn’t that what this debate is supposed to be about?” Doyle McManus also took note: “There’s so much agreement tonight that it’s barely a debate -- and it’s often not about foreign policy, either.”

With the presidential election just two weeks and few hours away, and with the race at a dead heat, it’s no surprise Obama came out swinging, no doubt still trying to make up for his underwhelming performance at the first presidential debate.


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“Obama is going on the attack very aggressively, right out of the gate. Sharply critical of Romney’s past statements,” wrote Jon Healey. But was that the best strategic choice? “I guess Obama came in not worrying about his likability,” said Jonah Goldberg. Mickey Kaus also noted: “O sacrificed sounding presidential to go on the attack.” But Kaus later said, “Obama got much better when he stopped chasing the ‘gotcha’ moments and stuck to broadbrush attacks.”

Meanwhile, Harold Meyerson was impressed with Obama: “Obama very good on Mitt’s numbers. Numbers, ironically, are Mitt’s weakest point. At vacuous prose, he excels,” he wrote. “Obama is finally very good.” Even Allen agreed: “O’s picked up some of Rom’s techniques: laying out things point by point -- got to give O the win in this round.”

After the debate, we asked tonight’s opinionators for their instant analysis on who they thought ultimately won the debate. Here are a few of their quick takes.

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Charlotte Allen: Much as it feels like a stab in my ventricles to say this, Obama won that debate, or at least most of it. On all the foreign-policy issues that Schieffer raised, Romney’s stance was: “I’m just like Obama except more so. He’s for getting tough on Iran, and I’m for getting tougher on Iran. He’s a friend of Israel, and I’m a better friend of Israel. He wants to make China play fair, and I want to make China play more fair.” He didn’t challenge Obama on Benghazi, an embarrassing failure of intelligence, security and White House whitewashing that left four Americans dead. He didn’t challenge Obama on the debacle of the “Arab Spring” and its resultant mess of militant Islam throughout the Mideast, most egregiously in Egypt. This enabled Obama to take the lead, sound tough and presidential, and score numerous commander-in-chief points. The only good thing for Romney was that what Obama really wanted to do was have a rematch of Debate #1 so that he could come on stronger this time around. And Romney was only too happy to accommodate by injecting economy-related digressions into every foreign-policy issue that moderator Schieffer raised. So the debate quickly turned to hiring zillions more teachers, raising taxes (aka asking “the wealthy to do a little bit more”), green energy, and the rest of Obama’s favorite topics. The downside for Obama was that this allowed Romney to pound home one more time the various fails -- joblessness, declining middle-class incomes, etc. -- generated by Obama’s domestic policies over the past four years. By the very end, Romney was on a roll and Obama was reduced to blaming George W. Bush. Still, overall, I’ve got to hand Obama a win on points.

Meghan Daum: Romney started out strong but Obama was winning after the first half-hour. Not a game changer one way or the other. But don’t listen to me. I played a drinking game with “concur” and ended up doing, like, five shots in 30 seconds.

Jon Healey: Each candidate recycled strategies from an earlier debate: Obama again showed the assertive, critical style he displayed in the second debate, and Romney demonstrated the more accommodating, reactive style that Obama used in the first debate. In fairness to Romney, he didn’t do as badly Monday as Obama did on Oct. 3. But he let too many of Obama’s points go unchallenged, particularly when Obama made the case (which he did repeatedly) that Romney’s positions were (ahem) slippery.

I don’t think either candidate had any game-changing lines, and both were clearly more interested in debating domestic policy than foreign policy. But Romney didn’t help his case by essentially seconding virtually every move Obama has made overseas. His arguments seemed to boil down to, I’ll do what Obama did, only stronger and with more credibility. That’s not much of a critique of the incumbent.

Mickey Kaus: Romney won first half by sounding moderate, knowledgeable. Obama seemed peevish trying to prove he wasn’t. Obama hit stride in second half by abandoning sniping for broadbrush “reckless” critique, and by playing bin Laden card effectively. He suddenly seemed more commanding.

I assume the first half is more important than the second half, just because voters tune out (absent any zingers or gaffes). I also assume Romney had a lower bar to meet, thanks to low expectations and voters simply looking for a plausible alternative. So I would say Romney did a bit better in pure political terms. I’m not at all sure that’s what others will think.

Schieffer was trying desperately not to be Candy Crowley. He succeeded.

Doyle McManus: Romney’s key word: peace. Message: not a warmonger. Obama’s big word: nation-building. His agenda’s at home. Bottom line: Obama looked like an underdog on the attack. Romney played for a tie, agreed on most issues, avoided gaffes. No game-changer.

Patt Morrison: Obama started with the strong commander in chief advantage and managed it well -- Romney often found himself in the subordinate position of agreeing with Obama, with a few asterisks. Only when they wrenched a foreign policy debate onto domestic economic policy did Romney differentiate himself more from the president. Obama won, but paradoxically Romney didn’t exactly lose.

Jim Newton: Mitt Romney was a responsible candidate at Monday’s debate -- and it was devastating to his candidacy.

He agrees with the Obama response in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iran. He supports the aspirations of women abroad, though not at home. He argues for a different “leadership” but never says what that would be.

Romney has no ideas on foreign policy, other than to endorse Obama’s and to seek to replace the president he supports.

Stay tuned: Check later this evening for Doyle McManus’ column about the foreign policy debate. The editorial board will also weigh in shortly.


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