My favorite moment of the 2012 presidential debates came at the beginning of the final confrontation Monday night.
The moderator, Bob Schieffer, invited both candidates to "give your thoughts" on the Middle East. Republican nominee Mitt Romney went first and began with a typical stumbling attempt to be charming, almost successful in its very failure: Something about an earlier "humorous event" (it was the annual Al Smith dinner for the archdiocese of New York, at which politicians tell jokes) and how "it's nice to maybe be funny this time, not on purpose. We'll see what happens." Huh?
Then he moved into the mode where he sounds like a college freshman padding a term paper. "This is obviously an area of great concern to the entire world, and to America in particular, which is to see a complete change in the structure and the environment in the Middle East."
Romney next noted "a number of disturbing events" caused by "terrorists of some kind," a.k.a. "Al Qaeda-type individuals."
Then came the stunner. "But we can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said. This was startling, a rare vivid turn of phrase coming from a man whose palette generally runs to gray. Not only that, but it sounded unscripted, as if it had popped into his head seconds before he said it. I'm not saying that it actually was unscripted; I'm just saying that whoever scripted it is awfully good.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess" also happens to be profoundly true, and we do not look to Mitt Romney for excessive displays of either profundity or truth.
Of course, Romney being Romney, he almost immediately contradicted himself. After saying we need a "comprehensive strategy" (hard to argue with that), he reverted to Clint Eastwood mode (the pre-empty-chair Eastwood, champion of individual courage against the limp bureaucracy, not symbol of premature senility): "Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture." Then he explained, "But my strategy is broader than that," and went on to recommend the report of "a group of Arab scholars" that was "organized by the U.N." and talks about creating a civil society, giving rights to women and suchlike liberal goody-goody stuff.
At times, Romney seemed to be channeling George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who died the day before the debate. "McGovernism" was a term used exclusively by people who disagreed with it. It was shorthand for the alleged takeover of the Democratic Party by its extreme left wing, just as "tea party" has come to be shorthand for the takeover of the Republican Party by its extreme right wing.
On Monday evening, Romney's job was to convince people that he could be entrusted with the nation's security and wouldn't get us all blown up unless Bibi Netanyahu wants it. So Romney sounded like a McGovernite — except when he sounded like Caspar Weinberger, the bottomless maw for defense spending who was secretary of Defense under President Reagan.
A favorite point of McGovernites was the folly of embracing corrupt dictators. (A favorite point of conservatives was the folly of not embracing corrupt dictators.)
Here was Romney on the Arab Spring: "I wish that, looking back … we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world, and that we would have worked more aggressively … to have them make the transition toward a more representative form of government, such that it didn't explode in the way that it did."
In other words: We should have dumped Egypt's Hosni Mubarak sooner rather than later. And we should now be a more enthusiastic conspirator against Syria's Bashar Assad. This used to be called "getting on the right side of history." In fact, it was called that Monday evening — by President Obama, whose policy it more or less describes.
Romney's apostasy doesn't stop there. He is also for peace. I mean he is really, really for peace, if you can believe what he says, which, unfortunately, you can't. Peace is what it's all about, he says. "Our mission" in the world, he said, is "to make sure the world is more — is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they're going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war. That's our purpose."
In his closing remarks, just in case no one got the message, Romney reiterated the point: "I want to see peace. I want to see growing peace in this country. It's our objective."
Yes, he had a few kind words for freedom as well, but "freedom" is old hat for Republicans. "Peace" is highly suspicious.
Most foreign policy controversies can be boiled down to peace versus freedom. What do Romney's neoconservative advisors and supporters think about their man taking McGovern's side of this ancient argument? They believe that when freedom is at stake, America must act. And freedom always seems to be at stake. Do they think their man is talking peace only for campaign purposes, and will revert to Eastwood mode if elected? And do they know something we don't?
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.