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.

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An Old View on Free Speech, Restated

The assassination of America’s Ambassador to Libya and the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo should remind us that blasphemy, bigotry, and insult, as deplorable as they can be, are the ultimate test of a democracy’s commitment to free speech.

Speech isn’t free at all if we declare that it must reflect the common wisdom, present a noncontroversial stance, or is subject to the political diktat of the State. No, free speech has always been first and foremost about the hard cases, those words and thoughts we despise. I recognize that, among Western peoples, this view might be uniquely American, but that doesn’t mean I hold it to be any less true.

Now, before my initial claim settles into that niche of your brain labeled “cliché,” remember that views we loathe today were often a majority opinion in the past, while those we cherish were sometimes the views of a minority that the State could and often did suppress.

Consider: Free speech is about calling people to Jesus and it is about denying the divinity of Christ. It is about the racist’s venom and it is about the oppressed minority rising in defiance of the oppressor. It is about burning the flag and calling those who burn the flag moral pygmies. It is about others hurting our feelings and us using mockery — not bombs — as our weapon of choice in response. It is, in its most banal modern formulation, the right to be a douchebag and the right to call douchebags douchebags.

There will be those, possibly including some who work at the US Embassy in Cairo, who are ashamed of this aspect of American democracy, who envy Europe’s restrictionist model and argue that the right to speak does not include the right to offend, though they would initially define “offense” to include only the most extreme cases. Yet “offense” is ultimately a subjective measure, and much like Plato’s perfect government, the guardianship of a perfectly “sensitive” government is made impossible by our human failings. What’s more, we should remember that all government power is fungible: the power to “improve” society by censoring speech we deem “hateful” is also the power to “improve” society further by eliminating views the majority simply deems “unhelpful.”

I’m not one for constructing a partisan straw man. President Obama has responded adequately, and Secretary Clinton’s response was better still. Governor Romney has arguably overplayed his political hand during the crisis. But we mustn’t draw the wrong lessons from these attacks. The problem is the violent extremists themselves, not the behavior that “provoked” the violence. To say otherwise is to treat the First Amendment, if not the whole of the US Constitution, the way an apologist for rape treats women wearing short skirts.

The Consensus

There comes a moment in every American political convention when foreign policy is the focus and the two parties attempt to draw clear lines between their foreign policy platforms while papering over all the similarities. For the Republicans that moment was on Wednesday night, when Secretary Rice spoke, and again on Thursday when Gov. Romney accepted the nomination.  History records past proclamations made for the cheering crowds: “If I am elected, America won’t be the policeman of the world/We should stand up to the butchers in Beijing/We will close Gitmo and leave Iraq.” A few months later these bold promises were abandoned and forgotten.

Things change when you actually get elected, after all.

Now that we’ve reached the close of Obama’s four-year term, It’s worth looking at what kind of foreign policy president he has been. Although most Americans are bitterly divided about Obama’s domestic policies, they give him passing marks in international affairs. And why not? There hasn’t been a major terror attack, the US hasn’t invaded another country, the world has resisted the calls for Smoot-Hawley redux, and Iran’s nuclear program, as troubling as it is, means little to Americans still struggling to make ends meet.

In fact, given the clear overlap between Obama and his predecessor, it would neither be unfair nor incorrect to say that this is the third term of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, much as George H.W. Bush’s term was the third term of Reagan’s foreign policy. The style of Bush and Obama’s diplomacy has differed considerably, yet Obama the campaigner talked a line that was far different than the record of Obama the president. Recall, of course, that Bush the campaigner promised a foreign policy that was small and modest, but after 9/11 Bush’s agenda was anything but. The point here is that while stagecraft may differ, statecraft is almost always about continuity.

Claims like this may infuriate partisans, and one imagines their retorts. “But Obama bows before foreign leaders!” And Bush held hands with despots, so what? “But Obama doesn’t waterboard!” No, he performs extralegal assassinations of American citizens. Both presidents have given Glenn Greenwald plenty of things to write about and Julian Assange many secrets to leak. Greenwald can mainly thank Obama for his new column in The Guardian, while as for Assange, well, he’s certainly not writing the president love letters from the Ecuadorian embassy.

One must admit there are a few substantive differences in stated goals of the two administrations. Obama has called for nuclear disarmament and made an early personal appeal to Arab and Muslim states, at the apparent expense of the American-Israeli relationship. Our nukes aren’t going away anytime soon, though, and the outreach to Muslim states seems but a footnote in the US’ ongoing push for regime changes in the Middle East. Bibi is a pain in the ass, but Hillary is an old friend of Israel, so policies haven’t changed much from the Bush years, only rhetoric.

The same holds for other key relationships and interests. A “managed rise” of China was on Bush’s agenda, and remains on Obama’s. Unlike Bush, Obama hasn’t given the thumbs-up to any coups in Venezuela, but the relationship with Hugo Chavez remains both prickly and cynical. (Hugo calls the US Satan, America calls him a would-be dictator, but he still sells the US oil.) Despite the mismanaged PR theater of the “reset button,” Obama never won over Russia, and the administration has come to realize that Putinism is the problem. (Bear in mind that Bush never lost Russia; the crucible of Putinism was Clinton’s wars in the Balkans.) Oddly enough, Obama seems to have focused on Africa less than Bush, perhaps because Obama has less to prove to Africa, or perhaps because he has been afraid of looking “too black.” As for the rest, the archaic embargo against Cuba remains, arms sales continue to every country that will buy weapons, and America is still dependent on foreign oil. Finally, it goes without saying that the UK remains America’s most stalwart ally, gripes about busts of Churchill notwithstanding.

A second term for Obama might change things, since he would have more flexibility and a chance to author his own foreign policy. A Romney presidency, conversely, would be destined to be like Obama’s. Keep these facts in mind this as the campaign enters the home stretch. When Obama talks about his foreign policy during the debates, remember that he stands on far more of Bush’s legacy than he’ll ever admit. And when Romney argues that he’ll make a dramatic break from the status quo, remember that he’s either lying to you or else he doesn’t yet understand what all presidents soon learn:  America’s foreign policy is ruled by the consensus.

Note:  This post has been adapted from a Facebook posting and edited for clarity.