Recently President Obama has wondered if Mitt Romney has been watching too much of the retro TV show "Mad Men," as Romney seemed stuck in the 1950s. Indeed, in their final debate Monday night, Romney was obsessed with nuclear weapons, wants to build up the military, and regards Russia as America's No. 1 foe in the world.
The president walked a thin line, maintaining a presence that many would call "presidential," while aggressively pointing out his opponent's changes of position. He tried to make Romney seem out-of-touch when he criticized Romney's saying the Navy has fewer ships than at any time since 1917. Obama pointed out a modern navy has aircraft carriers and submarines and doesn't need as many ships. He said the military no longer has horses and bayonets, either — which is likely to be a soundbite in post-debate news coverage.
Obama hammered him for saying that Russia was America's "No. 1 geopolitical threat," when the president feels the most immediate threat is al-Qaida and anti-American Islamic radicalism. Whatever Romney meant when he put Russia on top of the list, he still had no answer. Like a drowning man reaching for anything that floats, Romney blurted out the name of Vladimir Putin at the end of his answer.
The president caught Romney for "Etch-A-Sketching" on setting a date to leave Afghanistan. He was so effective at calling out Romney, the latter seemed to change his position right before our eyes, saying U.S. troops should withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. To my ears, that sure sounded like announcing a withdrawal date to our enemies.
Romney, for his part, delivered a line that must've had his Republican primary opponents frothing at the mouth, when he said of Middle East conflicts: "We can't kill our way out of this mess." Clearly another Etch-A-Sketch moment. Romney didn't just shake things up, he practically threw the toy against the wall, as he had been rattling his bayonet at Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iran for months.
Romney played small-ball, going for shipyard workers' votes in Virginia by citing the downsizing the Navy, Jewish votes in Florida by "kvetching" over the president's handling of Israel and Iraq's nuclear threat, and undecided, war-weary moms with claims to be a "peace" president. For a man who organized pro-Vietnam War demonstrations in college, the word "peace" must've tasted bitter in Romney's mouth.
Obama was so strong, Romney agreed with him on sanctions against Iran, drone strikes to take out al-Qaida leaders and trade sanctions against Iraq. It may well be that the Romney strategy was to play for a tie on foreign policy, because they felt Romney has an edge on the domestic economy. It's as though Romney just noticed that Obama's done a good job on foreign policy even as he insisted (untruthfully, according to CNN's fact checker) that the president went on an "apology tour" to the Middle East, which he noted, in pandering for votes in South Florida, skipped Israel.
CBS' Bob Schieffer was the moderator and like a good umpire in baseball, you didn't notice he was there. He kept the discussion going and kept the times for both candidates roughly equal. Having said that, it's quite possible Romney's handlers told him not to quarrel with the host, to appear less prickly than he had with Candy Crowley in the second debate and more "presidential."
Did the debate change the race? Probably not much, and that's been the case after nearly all third debates. To put it in NASCAR terms, Obama was the lead car, with Romney drafting, sticking right on the president's rear bumper, hoping to overtake him at the checkered flag.
Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.
This program aired on October 23, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.