No More Foreign Policy Debates

There will be debates about foreign policy, of course, but the sad spectacle of the last presidential debate of 2012 suggests that the idea of a presidential debate dedicated to foreign policy has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

By my rough estimate, the two candidates used more than one quarter of debate time to talk about domestic economic policy.  At least half of the remaining time was spent agreeing on broad foreign policy points — Drones are good! Israel is our friend! Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014! — and the remaining half was used to debate Governor Romney’s assertion that his foreign policy would be the same as Obama’s, only better.  (And both of them would have basically the same foreign policy as George W. Bush.)

The particulars of this debate were not the problem.  No, the problem lies in the substance.  The candidates continually veered back to domestic policy because, as the bank robber Willy Sutton allegedly said, that’s where the money is.  Voters care about foreign policy when we are attacked, e.g. September 11th, and they care when war weariness is an issue, e.g. the final years of the war in Iraq.  But even in these cases they can only care so much.

Obama’s victory in the debate was preordained after a fashion.  An incumbent president enters into every foreign policy debate with a distinct advantage, since it is unlikely that his or her opponent has actually crafted foreign policy, and if they have, it is also unlikely that they did so recently.  (An exception to this rule would’ve been a debate between President Obama and Ambassador Huntsman, but the stars were not in the ambassador’s favor.)  Few expected Governor Romney to win.  That said, it is not because of fairness to a challenger that the foreign policy debate should be scrapped.

The numbers and press reports tell us a clear story, which is that voters don’t make up their minds based on foreign policy.  And the candidates oblige us.  When, for instance, was the last time Vice President Biden was as substantive on foreign policy as Senator Biden had consistently been?  (Let us set aside, for the moment, that Senator Biden was considerably to the left of Vice President Biden on foreign policy.)  And it was not a mark of weakness nor an admission of defeat for Governor Romney to conclude the “foreign policy” debate with remarks that were 80% domestic policy and 20% fluff about peace.  Those remarks were planned, not spontaneous.  It was Romney’s silent admission that the the foreign policy debate is useless.

Unfortunately, the first camp to declare the foreign policy debate obsolete and call for changes will be attacked for not caring about foreign policy.  The current debate system locks both parties into a kind of mutually assured destruction, which means only an outside group, such as the Commission on Presidential Debates or another independent voice, could get momentum moving on changing the structure of US presidential debates.

If the foreign policy debate really does get scrapped for the 2016 election, what should take its place?  One of my personal thought experiments wound up getting independently mirrored as a Tweet today:

 
A four-person debate, with a moderator, would give the vice presidents another chance to shine or falter.   It would illustrate the teamwork and complementary styles of the ticket.  Most importantly, it would allow the candidates to double clothesline the competition.  I kid.  Somewhat.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

We should also consider a final, unmoderated debate, a freewheeling discussion on the issues.  (A timekeeper could help manage the candidates but not offer any questions.)  Without a lifeline or inane questions from a moderator, the candidates would be free to inspire — or disgust — the American people.  It would remove one of the most enervating aspects of the modern presidential debate, the stultifying web of rules and pre-debate agreements which ensure that the two candidates only debate around the margins and suck all of the spontaneity out of the room.  Lastly, it would turn the presidential debate into what it deserves to be — a battle of the wits, not just a battle of the debate coaches.

Our proposed debate schedule looks like this:

  1. Presidential debate on the economy
  2. Vice-presidential debate
  3. Presidential town hall debate
  4. “Tag team” debate
  5. Unmoderated presidential debate

Of course, five debates might seem like a lot to an American public who couldn’t really be bothered to tune into the final debate, but after the primary season and its seemingly endless debates, would it be so bad to have one more debate if it could be a debate that truly mattered?

Romney Beats Romney, Obama Wins

I tuned into the debate at the halfway mark, just as Romney was giving an effective, soft-spoken critique of Obama’s broken promises. It was the only hit Romney would score on Obama for the next 45 minutes. By the time my C-Span stream cut out during Obama’s closing remarks, it was clear the president emerged the victor in the second presidential debate of 2012.

Obama wasn’t an excellent debater, but he was good. He was engaged, energized, and aggressive — the total opposite of the Obama of the first debate. He was helped by having a center-left New York audience, and also by Biden’s performance in the vice presidential debate. He managed a couple of good quips at Romney’s expense, especially when Romney whined about the investments in the president’s pension. And this time, he was aware that he would be seen on the split-screen (and by the audience), so he adjusted his body language accordingly. There was no looking down.

But Obama wasn’t beyond mistakes or stupid arguments, such as saying automatic (not semi-automatic) weapons need to be taken out of the hands of criminals (for those unaware of American law, this is not an actual problem), calling manufacturing jobs high-skilled jobs (they aren’t or else they couldn’t be outsourced to China) or bragging about the growth in American exports (which is more attributable to the historically weak USD than anything else). And on the economy, which will be the most important issue in most voters’ minds, Obama failed to convince people he would be better than Romney — which is pretty remarkable.

Romney’s defeat was not as devastating as Obama’s was in the first debate, but at a time when both campaigns are focusing on the margins, Romney lost valuable ground. I missed both “binders full of women” — the most quotable Romney line/gaffe of the evening — as well as Romney criticizing the Bush administration, which, if Twitter commentary was any indication, was borderline bitter. What I was there for, however, was Romney’s weird stream-of-consciousness answers once Obama knocked him off script.

What will frustrate Republicans the most is how many missed opportunities Romney had. Every time he had a good question or opening, he would mangle his lines or go off on rambling tangents. He was given a chance to criticize the president on Libya, and responded in such a hamfisted way that I can’t imagine him being able to bring it up effectively in the final foreign policy debate next week. He was given a question on immigration that Republicans need to answer, but he focused largely on illegal immigration instead of a comprehensive policy that would talk about enforcement on the one hand and more paths to citizenship on the other. Gun control led to an sloppy invocation of the Fast and the Furious scandal, then a discussion of two-parent families, and Romney’s basic correctness was overshadowed by the awkwardness of the transition.

Finally, Romney’s Lou Dobbs-esque pledge to start a trade war with China was his most annoying position. I can’t believe Romney even believes it, since he defended his personal investments in Chinese companies. Governor Romney would’ve had the sense to call for a balanced relationship with China, as would have businessman Romney, but candidate Romney’s China policy exists in Schumer-Dobbsian anti-China talking point netherworld where constantly repeating “I will label China a currency manipulator on day one!” is a demonstration of strength. Xinhua will not be amused.